NOTE: In the following story, I have taken liberties with Kaikan Phrase canon. I conceived this story when I had only seen episodes 1-16, and did not know what happened after their tour. I saw episodes 17-20, which contained the *real* end of the tour, only after I had started writing it. I decided to keep my own version, as backtracking to conform to canon would have thrown the whole story out of whack. So. . .consider this a Kaikan AU. ~_^ For Weiss, it takes place during the Estet arc, about a month after the Wundar X incident.

A Weiss Kreuz/Kaikan Phrase Crossover Sekkushiaru Roman

by Sailor Mac

“YEAH! We really nailed that one!”

Santa leapt out from behind his drums, wiping a muscular forearm across his forehead. “We’re *hot*,” he told his bandmates. “We’re more *on* than we were for the band contest!”

“I have to agree with you,” Towa said, taking off the strap of his bass. “We haven’t sounded this good in a *long* time.”

“The road trip really did us some good,” Yuki added, starting to put his guitar back into its soft case and brushing back a few stray locks of long, purple hair. “Atsuro, your sister came up with a great idea.”

Atsuro looked up from his own instrument, which he was checking over for frayed strings before putting it away. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “She’s the brains in the family. Without her. . .we’d still be the band who couldn’t get booked in a live house.”

“We’re *ready* for this weekend’s gig,” Santa said as he twisted the nut holding one of his cymbals in place. “*More* than ready.”

“Don’t get *too* cocky,” said a calm voice from across the room. “There’s no telling whether we’ll still be this *on* this weekend.”

“Hey, Sakuya, even *you* have to agree that this was our best practice ever,” Santa said, stalking across the room toward the cool, dark-haired, black-clad figure. Uh-oh, Atsuro thought. Sakuya plus Santa equals World War III. He watched the drummer glare at the singer like a pro wrestler ready to go to the mat, spiky blond hair looking even more bristly than normal. . .and Sakuya return his usual icy stare.

“The practice was good. We were on. . .for tonight.”

“So you’re tryin’ to say we may not be good enough when Saturday comes? Is that what you’re sayin’?”

Atsuro was about to turn his attention back to his instrument. . .when he felt a hand drop on his shoulder. A very familiar, velvety voice said, “Come on. . .let’s go work on that song. We can still get quite a bit written before you have to go home.”

The boy turned around, and saw a very welcome sight indeed. Tall and slender, with long, blond hair and a cool, elegant demeanor, dressed in a plain white shirt and a black satin skirt that somehow looked *right* on him. Atsuro actually found his heart skipping a beat, although he’d been looking at Towa all day.

“I’m with you,” Atsuro said, getting to his feet and brushing his thick, red hair out of his eyes. He was half a head taller than Towa, although it didn’t *feel* that way. . .the other young man’s regal bearing made him seem statuesque.

They turned and looked at the others. Yuki, who all too often found himself in the role of peacemaker, had managed to keep the small brushfire of an argument from turning into an inferno. . .and Sakuya had gone off on his own. Yet again.

He just vanishes into thin air, Atsuro thought. Like some kind of magic trick. . .

“We’ll see you guys later,” Atsuro called to Yuki and Santa. He saw the two exchange knowing looks. . .the whole band was quite aware of Towa and Atsuro’s relationship. It wasn’t a big deal to anyone. . .which Atsuro had found out after weeks of agonizing over coming out of the closet.

“Sure,” Yuki said. “We’ll catch you tomorrow night. . .same place, same time!”

“Yeah!” Atsuro said. “I am *pumped* for Saturday!”

“We’re gonna KICK ASS!” Santa whooped, rushing up to Atsuro. The two high-fived.

“I have to admit,” Towa said with one of his quiet smiles, “I’m very much looking forward to this one myself.”

They said their goodbyes and left the rehearsal studio, breathing in the warm, moist air of a late summer night. Atsuro grabbed Towa’s hand and squeezed it. “I don’t care *what* Sakuya says. . .we *are* on a roll!”

“I think so, too,” Towa replied. “We’ve never been tighter. . .it’s almost like we can read each other’s minds now. I have *never* been in a band like this before.”

“Something’s gonna happen,” Atsuro said. “Something *real* good. . .*real* soon. I can feel it. That song we’re writing now. . .millions of people are going to end up hearing it!”

“Well, I wouldn’t say *millions*,” Towa said as they turned the corner and headed toward his apartment. “At least not yet. We’ll just see how. . .”

There was a sudden noise behind them. . .a roaring, a squealing of brakes. . .the two young men turned around. . .

“LOOK OUT!” Towa screamed, slamming into Atsuro and sending them both hurtling toward the ground. They rolled over and over, slamming against the curb. . .as there was another squeal of brakes, not too far from them.

Atsuro looked up. There was a huge sedan, dark in color, about 10 years old. It was spinning around, as if it had made a too sudden stop. . .and then, suddenly, it was hurtling toward them at a murderous speed.

“HOLY SHIT!” he screamed, leaping to his feet and pulling Towa up with him. The two musicians ran, ignoring the weight of the instruments on their backs, the protesting pain of overtaxed muscles. The thing was behind them. . louder, louder still. . .and then a sickening crunch of metal as it hopped the curb. . .

Towa glanced around, feeling like he was suspended in a moment that felt like hours, feeling nothing but the pounding of his own heart and the sickening rush of full throttle terror. The thing was mere feet away. . .and then, he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. . .

“THERE!” he shouted, pulling Atsuro toward a burned out, abandoned building, never so glad in his life that they’d taken the shortcut through the shabbier part of town. One window was missing a pane of glass, and they dove, not caring about what they’d find at the bottom. . .getting cut up was far preferable to being mowed down.

As they hit the rotted, damp floor, there was a crunch of wood and metal as the driver slammed into the wall. There was a pause, then the chunk of a car door opening. The two young men clung to each other like children in the dark, breathing heavily, waiting for the sound of footsteps. . .

But instead, there was the sound of a siren in the distance, getting closer. The assailant barked something unintelligible, slammed the car door again and gunned the motor. A squeal of tires followed.

Atsuro buried his face in Towa’s shoulder, trembling, feeling closer to the verge of tears than he’d been in years. The police siren faded away. . .the officer had never intended to come down this road. But without even knowing it, he had saved two lives.

“Towa. . .oh, Towa. . .what. . .what was. . .oh, gods, why would somebody do that to us?”

Towa clung to his lover tightly. You’re safe, he thought. Thank the gods. . .all I could think about the whole time is this person was going to hurt *you*. I never thought about myself. . .

“Shh,” he said, stroking Atsuro’s hair. “It’s over.”

“No, it’s not! What if they come back?”

Towa’s heart dropped into his stomach. He was thinking the same thing. “We’re getting out your cell phone,” he said, “and we’re calling the police. Now.”

Atsuro reached for the device clipped to his belt, dialing the emergency number with trembling fingers. “Hello. . .I’d. . .like to report a. . .” He swallowed hard. “An attempted murder. Someone tried to run my friend and I down.”

“And what is your current location?”

“We’re on Miyaki Street. . .in. . .in an abandoned building. . .”

“The address, please?”

“Address? I. . .don’t know the *address*, we’re in an abandoned building, and. . .”

“We need the exact address to dispatch a squad car.”

Atsuro jerked his fingers through his red hair in frustration. “Look. many abandoned buildings *are* there on this street? We’re hiding out here frightened for our lives. . .”

In the police headquarters, Mika Mazaraki, a round-faced, not-too-bright rookie, sat at the computer console. What part of “we need the exact location” don’t they understand? she thought. We can’t send cars chasing around to every abandoned building in town! Besides, it was hard enough to hear and concentrate in this place. . .everyone around her talking all at once, and that damn leggy redhead secretary chatting up the shift captain right behind her. . .

She thinks she’s hot shit, Mika thought, just because she was the “personal assistant” to the old police chief. The *dead* police chief. Oh, everybody knew just *what* she had assisted Chief Shiuichi Takatori with.

“Look,” the boy at the other end was saying, “we were coming home from band practice. . .and this *car* came out of nowhere, and. . .”

Great, the young cop thought as she typed the information on her computer screen. Now he’s giving me his life story. Just *tell me where you are*, you stupid. . .great, and now the redhead bitch is reading over my shoulder. Quit breathing down my neck, and. . .

“I’ll take this call,” the tall woman said in a soft, sensual voice.

Mika turned around. “Huh?”

“I’ll take it. Give me the headset. Please.”

“How come?”

The woman folded her arms and started tapping her foot. “Because. . .it’s obvious you’re not paying attention to it. This may be a matter of life and death, you know.”

Mika got up, snapped “Bitch!” and shoved the headphones at her, storming out of the room and mumbling something under her breath about “screwing her way into a job.”

Atsuro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. What kind of police department *is* this? he thought.

“I’m so sorry,” a soft, mature female voice said on the other end. “Now, please tell me what happened.”

“Well. . .my bandmate and I, we were coming home from practice at Lucky Dink Studios. We practice there all the time. . .we’re with a band called Lucifer. . .”

He told the story as Towa looked anxiously out at the street for any further sign of the sedan. . .but there was none. . .He tried to breathe easy, but he couldn’t.

Who would do this, he thought, and why? Who would just run down two musicians on their way home from practice? Is it a case of mistaken identity? It has to be. I have *never* done anything to make anyone do that. . .and I *know* Atsuro hasn’t. . .

Once Atsuro was done with his story, the woman said, “All right. Have you got a way to take down a phone number?”

Atsuro was a bit puzzled by that. . .but he fumbled in his pocket and came up with a stub of well-chewed pencil and a receipt from a convenience store. “Yeah.”

The woman reeled off seven digits, and said, “Go home. If you see or hear anything suspicious. . .call that number. *Immediately.* Someone will come to help you. And are you going to be at Lucky Dink Studios again tomorrow?”

“Um. . .yeah. . .”

“We’ll send our people down there tomorrow. You *will* have protection, rest assured. Remember. . .any kind of trouble whatsoever, call that number.”

“Um. . .thank you. . .”

He hung up, and walked over to Towa. “The policewoman. . .promised us protection. . .she said she was going to talk to us tomorrow, at the rehearsal. . .”

“Tomorrow?” Towa went pale.

“That’s what she said. . .but she gave me a number to call if there’s trouble tonight. . .” He gripped his lover’s arm. “Towa. . .can I stay with you tonight? I couldn’t face my parents after this, and I don’t want you to be alone, either.”

“Of course, darling.” The boys embraced. “I guess. ..we have to find our way home, now. . .just keep that cell phone on, and that number handy. . .”

Hand-in-hand, they walked out on the street, looking around them, nervously.

Suddenly, their bright future had turned dark and dangerous.

* * *

The redhead saved the data from the phone call onto a floppy disc, which she then discreetly put in her purse. Then, she wiped all traces of the call from the official police records.

As soon as she’d glimpsed what that idiot rookie was typing, she’d suspected this was connected to all those other cases. . .the cases that the police had gotten nowhere with. Once she heard the name of the band, she knew for sure.

She turned the station back over to another young cop, and headed upstairs to where the police chief’s offices were. There was a private washroom there which only she had the keys to. A washroom which was nicely soundproofed.

Once there, she pulled out her cell phone and pressed a set of familiar numbers.

“Birman? It’s Manx. Listen, I’m going to have to step in and take back my old position for one mission. Don’t worry, you’re back in charge after this. I think I’ve just found a couple of young people who can help us track down an untrackable target. . .”

* * *

When the young girls of Tokyo who followed the music scene weren’t in the live houses, squealing over Lucifer or the other local pretty-boy bands, some could be found at the malls, looking for just the right outfit to wear to the next show. Some could be found in local record shops, looking to see if any of their favorites had “gone pro” and released a CD.

And then, there were the ones who joined the crowd of girls who congregated around a certain flower shop.

At first glance, it looked like any other of its kind. . .plants hanging in baskets around the entrance, huge eruptions of seasonal blooms in the windows, refrigerated cases filled with blossoms of all colors, shapes and sizes lining the walls.

But then. . .one got a look at the employees, and realized suddenly why the place was so popular. The shop was staffed by four model-handsome young men. . .indeed, one of the most popular pasttimes among the girls was fighting over who was the best-looking.

“Definitely Aya-san!” a green-haired, green-eyed girl in a sailor uniform squealed to her companions. “Look at that red hair. . .those gorgeous purple eyes. . .”

“He hardly says anything,” her petite, brunette companion sniffed. “And when he does. . .it’s usually nasty.”

“So?” the first girl said. “He’s strong and silent. . .a man of mystery. . .”

“I like Ken-kun!” said a pink-haired girl, dressed in a skirt-sweater-and-tie school uniform. “He’s got *such* a nice body!”

“I thought you liked Omi-chan,” the brunette said.

“Oh, I do. But I like Ken, too. . .in a different way. Omi’s just cute. Ken is *sexy*.”

“No, *Yohji* is sexy,” said a purple-haired girl as she walked up to the others.

“That’s *your* taste, Mariko,” the Aya admirer said.

“That’s *my* taste and the taste of a *lot* of the other girls here.” She pointed to the nearest window, where a cluster of girls had pressed their hands and faces like children in a candy store, their eyes glued to a tall blond man who was just wandering around the flowers, trying to avoid working by looking busy.

“Well, I just don’t like blonds,” said the pink-haired girl. “They can have him.”

“Omi’s blond,” the brunette reminded her.

“Yes, but Omi’s *different*. He’s just *so cute* that it doesn’t matter what color his. . .”

Just then, a high-pitched, slightly husky male voice behind them said, “Hi, girls!” The group whirled about on their heels as one, like soldiers doing an about-face. There was a 17-year old dirty-blond boy with enormous blue eyes, dressed in a red sweater and black pants, a schoolbag and laptop case slung over his shoulders. The pink-haired girl blushed at the very sight of him.

“Omi-kun!” Mariko said. “You’re late getting in today. . .”

“Stayed a bit to help fix a problem in the computer lab.” He looked into the shop. “Is Ken-kun in there?”

“We just saw him go into the greenhouse,” said the brunette. The pink-haired girl just giggled.

“Thanks!” Omi said, heading into the shop.

As soon as he left, all four girls broke out into gales of giggles. “He was *so* giving you the eye!” the green-haired girl said to Mariko.

“Was *not*!” said Mariko. “He was so giving *you* the eye!”

“Wonder why Omi-chan doesn’t have a girlfriend?” said the pink-haired girl. “So many girls like him. . .”

“Probably can’t decide on one,” the green-haired girl said. “There’s no other reason for a guy that cute *not* to have a girlfriend.”

* * *

Omi shut the flower shop door behind him and breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Getting some distance between him and those girls was always a high point of his day. He knew he should feel flattered that they were so admired. . .but it just made him feel like some kind of animal on display in the zoo.

“Omitchi!” Yohji said, ambling over to him. “You’re finally here!”

“Sorry. . .computer stuff. . .”

Yohji waved a hand. “No problem. Just be ready to take over for me in a few minutes. Yui from the dress shop across the street is coming over to see me. . .”

“Thought you didn’t like girls under 18,” Omi said.

“I don’t. But Yui had a birthday a few weeks ago. . .”

Omi shook his head. “You never change, Yohji-kun. Okay, I want to say hi to Ken-kun, and change out of my school uniform. . .then I’ll be right out.”

As he headed for the greenhouse door, Yohji chuckled to himself. “I’ll *bet* he’ll *say hi* to him,” he murmured.

Omi entered the glassed-in back room, where he saw a young man with chocolate-colored hair and emerald eyes, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, bent over a row of potted plants. The blond boy smiled to himself, quietly put down his bags, and snuck up behind the other. . .

Ken was scrutinizing the leaves of the plants, checking for any sign of parasites, when suddenly, a pair of hands grabbed him at the most sensitive spots on his ribs, and a familiar voice shouted “BOO!” He jumped with a yelp, whirling around.

“Gotcha!” Omi giggled.

“I’ll get *you!” Ken said. Omi started to move away, slowly, expecting Ken to grab him, or tickle him, or. . .

Instead, he backed Omi into the wall, holding onto his wrists, and crushed his mouth against the younger boy’s. Omi made a small noise of pleasure in his throat and eagerly responded, his lips caressing Ken’s as his tongue began to probe, tentatively. Ken opened his lips at the same time he released the other’s wrists, and their arms came about each other as their tongues stroked and tangled.

Omi whimpered a bit, starting to rub his body against Ken’s, a slow heat starting to course through his veins. He pulled his arms tighter around the other boy’s body, wanting them to dissolve into each other. . .

Ken eased away, slowly, reluctantly. They couldn’t do this. Not now. He placed one last, gentle kiss in the middle of the boy’s forehead.

“Ahh, Angel,” he said. “I’m so glad to see you here. . .”

“Tough day?” Omi said.

“Not really. . .I was getting kinda bored, you know. Same old thing. . .old ladies wanting stuff for their grandkids. . .giggly girls. . .people who don’t know a tulip from a sunflower. . .”

“Sounds. . .not fun,” Omi said.

“Eh. . .I’m so used to it. . .” He squeezed Omi tightly again. “Wanna go for sushi after we close up tonight? Then we can go home and snuggle on the couch and watch TV. . .”

“I have homework, Ken-kun! I’ve got a term paper to work on. . .and a test later this week. . .”

Ken’s face registered disappointment. . .but he said, “Okay. . .we’ll do it tomorrow, or the next night, then. But maybe, after you’re done with your homework, we can. . .”

The greenhouse door opened, and a silent presence entered the greenhouse. A young man with long, red ear tails turned an intense violet gaze on them. Ken and Omi felt him rather than heard him, a sort of disturbance in the air, as if a phantom had entered. Slowly, they turned and looked at him.

“Aya-kun. . .” Omi said, a small touch of fear in his voice. Not because his teammate intimidated him, despite his icy demeanor. It was because Omi had a sneaking suspicion just why Aya was there.

“We have to go to the basement,” Aya said. “Manx is here.”

“Manx?” Ken said. “I thought Birman was in charge now?”

“The woman in our basement is definitely Manx. And she definitely needs to see all of us. Now.”

Ken and Omi looked at each other and sighed. The playful light went out of their eyes. They were about to begin their real job — as assassins for the secret Kritiker organization, which was dedicated to finding and eliminating people who had committed henious crimes and eluded the police.

“So much for sushi,” Ken said.

Omi nodded. Ken noticed that his eyes were already starting to take on a hard, cold look, which he had always called The Mission Look. When Omi looked like that, Ken knew he was really into what they were doing, and he should give him his space.

“Come on,” Ken said, grasping his hand. “Let’s see what they’ve got for us this time.”

At the bottom of the stairs, sure enough, there was the redheaded woman who had been their commander for so long.

“Manx!” Ken said. “What brings you back here?”

“I thought you weren’t with Kritiker anymore?” Omi said, as he and Ken settled on the couch.

“I’m Kritiker for life,” Manx said. “I just decided to take some time off from active duty. But. . .I have a mission for you tonight, one that I discovered myself.”

“Beautiful *and* a good detective,” Yohji said from where he was sprawled in one of the chairs. “No wonder you’re my dream woman.”

“Typical,” Ken whispered to Omi. Yohji was a chronic flirt, turning the charm on for every woman of age that crossed his path.

“I’m flattered,” she said, “but I can’t take the credit entirely. Kritiker has been watching this case for awhile. I just found one piece of the puzzle.” She put a tape in the VCR attached to the wide-screen TV.

A shadowy image appeared of a man sitting behind a desk. Omi knew what it was supposed to be. . .a computer-generated image of Persia, the former head of Kritiker — Omi’s own uncle, Shiuichi Takatori. He wondered why Kritiker thought they still wanted to get their orders from a simulation of a dead man. It seemed pointless. . .and, to him personally, painful.

I wish he and I had spent more time together as uncle and nephew, he thought, instead of commander and assassin. Especially since my birth family didn’t want me. . .

The computer-generated Persia was saying, “Good afternoon, Weiss. We have another mission. You recall a month or so ago a mission where the target was Isa Okiwaji, the mad musician otherwise known as Wundar X.”

“Remember it?” Yohji mumbled. “I’ll never forget it!” He shuddered a bit in pain as he remembered when Omi had played Okiwaji’s music through his computer. . .music designed to drive people mad. . .within seconds after it had begun, it had put Yohji and Ken in sheer agony.

“Several local bands had played on the Wundar X recording,” the image continued, “and now, their members are being eliminated one by one, in different ways.” A series of gruesome images began to flash on the screen. . .the remains of a bus wreck, several bodies which had been stabbed and slashed, another group of corpses riddled with bullet holes. . .as the voice on the soundtrack reeled off each band’s name.

Ken winced at the images. Yohji’s eyes narrowed in anger. Omi’s steely gaze got even colder and harder. Aya just looked at the screen with the same unreadable expression on his face.

“So far, only one group that played on the CD managed to survive. . .a group called Lucifer.” Another picture appeared on the screen, of five young men against a brick wall, some holding musical instruments — the type of 8X10 glossy commonly passed out by young bands looking for bookings.

“Last night, two of the members were attacked. Your mission. . .act as the band’s bodyguards. Eventually, the killers will try again, and when they do, you will be there to catch and eliminate them.”

“Bodyguards?” Yohji said. “Sheesh. . .first we were Olympic security guards, now we’re rock musicians’ bodyguards. . .”

Omi looked at the picture. They’re our age, he thought. The one boy. . .the one at the right, holding the guitar. . .he looks no older than me.

The tape ended with Persia’s traditional sign-off line, “White hunters, hunt the tomorrow of the dark beats!”

Manx stepped in front of the screen. “So? Are we all in?”

“Bodyguards?” Yohji said. “We’re not some kind of security agency!”

“It’s the easiest way to catch the target,” Manx said. “Last night, when I was at the police headquarters, I intercepted an emergency call from one of those boys. He had just been attacked by the target, and the target fled. Doubtlessly, they will try again. If you are guarding these boys. . .it’s a guarantee you’ll be there when it happens.”

“Hey, Yohji, they’re rock musicians,” Ken said. “There’s probably plenty of girls hanging around them.”

“Are you in, then, Ken?” Manx said.

“Yeah, I am,” Ken replied. “Killing rock musicians for no reason. . .I mean, these are just young guys like us, right?”

“I’m in, too,” Omi said. He thought again of the picture that had flashed on the screen. . .five boys, their age. . .he imagined the terror of the boy who had been attacked the night before, the knowledge that the killer could come back any moment, and he shuddered.

Yohji didn’t hesitate to reply. The pictures he had seen on the screen had been infurating — and he’d seen a *lot* of crime in his lifetime. “Yeah, I’m in, too,” he said. “But *not* because of the girls.”

“Yeah, right,” Ken whispered to Omi, who giggled a bit.

Three down, one to go, Manx thought. And it was the most difficult nut to crack, the one who had bucked Kritiker from the day he joined.

“Aya?” she said, fixing the icy redhead with a steady gaze.

But Aya surprised her right off the bat by saying, “Yes. I’m in.”

“Well,” Manx said, “I’m glad to hear that.” She opened her briefcase and began to take out folders.

“Any mission we have could be a clue that leads to *her*.”

Ken and Omi exchanged looks. They could hear the extreme pain in his voice. Aya’s comatose sister had been kidnapped from her hospital bed a few months ago, and he had been unable to turn up any clues as to her whereabouts since. All they knew was that the crime involved Estet, some sort of semi-Satanic cult that had kidnapped several young people around the time that Aya’s sister disappeared.

“There very well could be a link between Estet and these crimes,” Manx said, as she began to pass the folders out. “Isao Kawaji was an Estet member.”

“We’re not gonna hafta listen to that Wundar X thing again, are we?” Ken said. “I *still* get a headache when I think of that.”

“No, you’re not,” Manx said. “Just talk to these boys, and find out everything you can about the recording of the CD.”

Omi flipped through the folder. There was his own mission report about the Wundar X case. . .police records on the previous murders. . .some information on Lucifer. . Not much connection between the cases, other than the Wundar X link, he thought. This could be a tough one to figure out. But, then again. . .he had to admit he got a charge out of the challenge of investigating. It was one of the positive elements of Weiss.

“What I’m going to do now,” Manx said, “is take you down to Lucky Dink Studios to meet them. The band members are expecting me, they think I’m a policewoman . . .”

* * *

“So what time is this woman gonna get here?” Santa said, opening a can of coffee. They’d assembled at Lucky Dink Studios, their usual rehearsal hall, as they did just about every afternoon. But today, nobody felt much like practicing. Least of all, Towa and Atsuro.

The couple was sitting on folding chairs next to the drum riser, looking like they’d been through the mill. Atsuro’s head kept drooping and his eyes had dark circles underneath, and the usually fastidious Towa looked unkempt.

“She should be here any second,” Atsuro said, trying to stifle a yawn. And not a moment too soon, he thought.

Neither he nor Towa had gotten a wink of sleep the night before. . .they had just clung to each other, listening to the night noises, jumping in fear at anything that sounded the least bit unusual.

“Towa,” Yuki said, kneeling beside his friend’s chair, “if you don’t feel safe. . .you’re more than welcome to crash at my place. You took me in for long enough. . .let me return the favor.”

“It’s okay, Yuki,” Towa said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “They didn’t follow us home, they don’t know where I live.”

“Well, if you ever feel the need to. . .”

Just then, a feminine voice at the door said, “Excuse me. . .is this the hall where Lucifer practices? I’m supposed to meet with a couple of members. . “

Atsuro jumped up and ran over toward her. “You’re the policewoman I spoke to last night?”

“Yes.” She produced an official-looking badge. “Special Officer Erika Sukari. And you are?”

“Atsuro Kiryuu.” He held his hand out for a shake. “These are the other members of the band. . .Yuki Toudou, he’s the other guitarist. . .Santa Nagai, he’s our drummer. . .over there is Sakuya Oukouchi, our singer. . .and this is Towa. He was with me last night.”

Towa stood up. “Very pleased to meet you,” he said.

“First thing we want to do is, could you tell me what happened again? From the beginning?”

Meanwhile, the members of Weiss waited outside in Manx’s car.

“What’s taking her so long in there?” Yohji said. “Is she hitting on these guys?”

“I dunno,” Ken said. “How come we have to wait out here like this? Why couldn’t we have just walked in with her?”

“Maybe it’s to help convince them she’s a real policewoman?” Omi said.

“Now how’s making us wait outside gonna do that?” said Yohji.

Aya just stared straight ahead, at the stars and quarter moon, his mind in another time, another place.

This mission very well might bring the bastards who have my sister out of hiding, he thought. It also might bring out. . .*him.*

Several months ago, Weiss had gone on a mission to the Olympic Games in Sydney. While there, Aya had caught a fleeting glimpse of someone he hadn’t seen in years, someone he thought he’d never see again — Yuushi, his former teammate on Kiritiker’s non-lethal unit, Crashers. Yuushi, a stunning blond who always wore white, who wielded an unusual weapon — a cundledargeon, a whip with a blade at the end.

Yuushi, his first love. Who was, supposedly, dead.

Aya had searched all over Tokyo for any sign of him after the Olympics, and found nothing. Until. . .during a mission not so long ago, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of a white coat, somehere far off. . .He’d pursued the man, after the target had been eliminated, but came up empty.

Was it really him, both times? he thought. Or was I seeing him. . . because I *want* to see him. . . All I know is I’ll never feel like a true human being again until I know that both he and my sister are safe.

His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the cell phone at his belt. He picked it up. “Moshi moshi?”

“Aya, it’s Manx. We’re ready for you. Bring the team to the second door on your right. . .that’s where the band is practicing.”

“Yes,” he said, and hung up. He turned to the others. “Manx needs us, now,” he said.

He got out of the car, thinking that this was just another mission, which would end with more dead bodies. He didn’t care about that anymore. He didn’t care about anything anymore. . .and, he thought, probably wouldn’t until he was reunited with Yuushi and his sister again.

* * *

“Your bodyguards will be in any moment,” Manx told the band members. She surveyed the group. . .they seemed to be regarding the situation with various degrees of seriousness. Towa and Atsuro were almost huddling together, still trapped in the nightmare of what had happened to them. Yuki stood near them, looking protective and poised for action, ready to spring after anyone who dared come near them. Santa sat on his drum riser, looking rather puzzled by everything, and Sakuya. . .was leaning against the far wall, arms crossed, an unreadable expression on his face.

That one over there, Manx thought, reminds me of Aya.

“Excuse me,” Towa said, “but.. .who are our *bodyguards*?”

“The police department has a special task force of young men trained in combat skills whom we use whenever we want them to blend into a crowd of young people inconspicuously. For instance, when we want to catch drug dealers at a rave. . .”

“Great,” Santa said. “We’re going to be watched by a bunch of narcs.”

Manx ignored him. “We’re using them so that whoever’s after you will think they’re roadies, or friends of yours, and won’t be suspicious.”

Yuki looked at her skeptically. “It almost sounds like you’re planning to use us as bait.”

“Not *bait*,” Manx said. “We will *not* let you be endangered anymore. But we figured the best way to catch this criminal is to. . .”

At that moment, the door opened and four young men walked in. Atsuro sized them up. A jock, he thought. And that guy, the tall blond. . .looks like a smoothie, a “player”-type. The redhead. . .geez, he just looks nasty. But, the fourth one, the little blond. . .well, he looks nice enough. . .

“These are the special officers I told you about,” Manx said. “This is Ken Hidaka. . .he’ll be watching you, Towa.”

Towa acknowledged the young man with a nod, thinking that this whole thing was somehow. . .strange. He’d never heard of the police assigning full-time bodyguards to people who weren’t celebrities before.

“Aya Fujimiya will be assigned to Yuki, and Yohji Kudou to Santa.”

“It’s okay,” Santa said. “I don’t need a bodyguard. I can take care of myself.”

“You’re as much in danger as Towa and Atsuro are,” Manx said. “There’s no guarantee that whoever attacked them won’t attack you next.”

Yohji walked over to Santa and held out a hand for a shake. “It’s okay. I don’t bite. Males, that is.”

“That’s okay,” Santa said, pumping the offered hand. “Neither do I.”

“And, Omi, you’ll be assigned to watch Atsuro over there.”

Omi gave him a small wave, feeling glad he’d been assigned to the boy his own age — he spent far too much time surrounded by adults.

Atsuro, meanwhile, was flooded with relief. They didn’t assign me the mean-looking dude. . .or the smoothie, he thought. This, I might be able to handle.

“Hey,” Yuki said, “What about Sakuya?”

“As I told you before,” Manx said, cooly, “we suspect this is tied into the murders of other musicians who played on the Wundar X recording. . .and you said he wasn’t involved in that.”

“Fine,” Sakuya said. “I don’t need protection, anyway.”

“Heh,” Santa replied. “I *knew* he was going to say that.”

“You said the same thing,” Yohji pointed out.

“Yeah. . .but I *meant* it. Sakuya’s just being. . .Sakuya.”

Santa looked over to where Yuki was sitting near his own bodyguard, trying to draw him into conversation. . .and getting monosyllables for an answer. Poor Yuki, he thought. Looks like he got the bad end of this deal.

“Now, because Towa and Atsuro are in the most immediate danger right now. . .I recommend that you both continue to stay at Towa’s apartment,” Manx said.

Atsuro desperately tried not to let a flash of happiness cross his face. . .but it was a losing battle. I can leave my home and stay with Towa! he thought. Suddenly, there was a very bright side to the horror.

“And, Ken and Omi. . .you’re going to stay with them.”

Towa gave a small start. “WHAT?” he said. It usually took a lot to break his unruffled calm. . .but the idea of having *four* people crammed into the apartment which had been barely big enough for two was not a welcome prospect.

“Please,” Manx said, “it’s for your own protection. It shouldn’t be more than a few days. . .and we’ll pay any expenses they incur.”

“We’re not messy, and we’ll stay out of your way,” Ken said.

Towa eyed the two boys. I don’t know anything about them, he thought, other than that they’re police officers.

And then, a small voice in the back of his head replied. . .if, indeed, they really *are* police officers. . .

But. . .he couldn’t go through another night like the last one, listening for any little noise, not knowing if it was the killers returning. And he *definitely* didn’t want Atsuro to go through it again.

“All right,” Towa said. “I’ll give you the address. Unfortunately, I only have one spare bed. . .it’s a couch, which opens up into a double. . .”

“Not a problem,” Omi said, quickly.

“Um. . .one of us can sleep on the floor,” Ken added.

Omi walked over to Atsuro, holding out his hand. “Hi. . .it looks like we’re going to be roommates for a few days. I’m Omi Tsukiyono.”

“I’m Atsuro Kiryuu. . .” Atsuro’s eyes detected a flash of gold in the other boy’s ear. “Hey. . .cool earring!”

“You like it? I actually got it on a dare. From Yohji-kun. . .over there, the one talking to your drummer. We were watching MTV one day, and I saw a singer with an earring like this, and I was saying how cool it looked. he dared me to get the same thing!”

“I’d love to have one like that!” Atsuro said. “My parents would *flip*, though. They barely accepted my hair.”

“You’re not a natural redhead?”

Atsuro shook his head. “It used to be brown. I dyed it when I left home for awhile. My parents couldn’t accept that I wanted to make music my career.”

Towa, meanwhile, went up to Ken and shook his hand. “I’m grateful that you’ll be protecting us. I don’t want any harm to come to Atsuro. . .or any of my other bandmates.”

“Hey, we’ll make sure it doesn’t,” Ken replied, as his eyes traveled over Towa’s rather unique outfit. . .black leggings and thigh-high black boots, over which he wore a medieval-style tunic of purple velvet with white sleeves. Damn, he’s got guts, Ken thought. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that in public.

“What happened last night. . .it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever experienced. I kept wondering what we might have done to deserve being attacked. . .”

“Your band ever been in any kind of trouble before?” Ken said.

Towa sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was open the band’s deepest wound yet again. . .but if it was relevant to the case. . .

“We got into a fight in the middle of a show a few months back. It got us banned from the live houses for awhile. But. . .that was just some local kids who said the wrong thing to Sakuya.”

“What was it that they said?” Ken replied.

“That we were all looks and no talent.”

The words reawakened memories in Ken. . .memories of his earliest days in J-League, of the other players whispering that the only reason he’d been recruited at such a young age was because of his looks, because the league wanted to attract more young girls. . .And then, he’d made a few of his trademark diving goal blocks, and that shut his detractors up fast.

Ken nodded. “I think I understand why Sakuya went ballistic,” he said. “I’d probably do the same thing.”

At that moment, a voice from the corner said, “Hey. . .are we going to *practice* tonight? Or am I just wasting my time?”

All heads turned and looked at Sakuya. “We *do* have a slight problem here, Sakuya,” Santa said. “Like, someone’s trying to *kill* us!”

“Are we still going ahead with the gig Saturday night? Or are we going to cancel?” Sakuya said, ambling over to the others. “If we’re canceling. . .I have other things I could be doing.”

“It’s my recommendation that you go on with the show,” Manx said. “But, ultimately, it’s up to you.”

There was a moment of silence, as the band members considered the risks.

Then, Atsuro said, “Hey, I’m still willing. We’ve got bodyguards, right?”

“I am, also,” said Yuki. “If we let these people shut us down. . .then they’ve won.”

“What the hell,” Santa said. “I’m in, too.”

Towa sighed. He wasn’t crazy about the idea. . .but he knew the others were all resolved to do it. “All right,” he said. “I’m willing to do it, as well.”

“Then we gotta get back to practicing!” Santa said, getting up and sitting behind his drum kit.

Manx turned toward the members of Weiss. “I’m leaving you on your own right now,” she said. “Remember. . .call me when you find anything out.”

“Don’t worry,” Omi said. “We will.”

The four assassins settled down on chairs and stools across from the five musicians to watch the practice. Omi found himself feeling a sense of excited anticipation. . .he couldn’t wait to hear their sound. . .

Atsuro’s a great guy, he thought. And being around a band all the time should be fun.

Then, he caught himself. Good gods, he thought. . .for the first time, I’m actually *enjoying* a mission!

* * *

Towa and Atsuro stood on the sidewalk in front of the Kiryuu house, waiting for their new bodyguards. They weren’t allowed to return to Towa’s apartment without them. . .those were the redheaded policewoman’s last instructions before she left them.

“I’m surprised my parents let me go so easily,” Atsuro said.

“They had a policewoman flashing her badge at them,” said Towa, shifting his bass a bit on his back. “They had no choice.”

“Well, the one *good* thing to come out of this is I get to stay with you for a few days,” Atsuro said, trying to sound cheerful.

Towa draped an arm around him and hugged him. “I just wish the circumstances could have been better. You don’t know what it did to me, thinking you were going to be hurt, or worse. . .”

The door of the house opened, and a slender, brown-haired girl made her way down the path toward them. “Isn’t it dangerous for you to be out here?” she said.

Atsuro turned, to see his older sister, Yuka — Lucifer’s manager, and his protector since he was a small child. “We’re all right, nee-chan,” he said. “We’re standing right under the light.”

“You think that’s going to stop someone who really wants to kill you?” she said. “Atsuro, do you *have* to go to Towa’s? I’d feel better if you were at home. . .”

Atsuro put his backpack and guitar down, and hugged his sister. “You heard what the policewoman said, nee-chan. It would be putting all of you in danger if I were to stay here. ”

“I know, but. . .I’m not going to know if you’re alive or dead. . .especially since I’m not allowed to go to your rehearsals, either.”

“We’ll keep in contact,” Towa said.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Yuka said, easing away from her brother. “Why *you*? You did nothing to anyone!”

“The woman seems to think it has something to do with that recording we played on. . .” said Atsuro.

“You mean that Wundar X guy? Something about him always struck me as. . .” Suddenly, she gasped, eyes widening. . .the Wundar X guy. . .there was something about him, something on the news recently. . .

“He was found dead right before his debut concert, wasn’t he?” she said.

Towa and Atsuro looked at each other. They’d both forgotten about that. . .but now that she’d mentioned it. . .

“I remember,” Towa said. “They found him slumped over his keyboard, right on stage. He’d been slashed to death.”

“And there was something before that,” Yuka said. “A whole bunch of people going crazy, committing suicide. . .and there was some kind of rumor that everyone who died went crazy while listening to the Wundar X CD.”

“But there’s rumors like that all the time, nee-chan,” Atsuro said. “Remember all that backwards-masking stuff? People were suing heavy metal bands for putting messages on their CDs that made people kill themselves. It was all crap.” But despite his words, he was starting to feel a bit anxious. . .what if one of those Wundar X-crazed people, instead of committing suicide, killed the mad musician, and was now after everyone who had worked with him? It would explain a lot.

Towa saw the look on his lover’s face, and he put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Probably urban myth,” he said. “It may be something as simple as the musician got mixed up with the Yakuza.”

“I don’t know,” Atsuro said, his hand covering Towa’s. “It’s too much of a coincidence that. . .”

A sportscar swung around the corner and pulled up in front of the house with a screech of brakes. The passenger side door popped open, and Omi hopped out, smiling. “Hi, Atsuro-kun! Hi, Towa-kun!” he called. “Ready to go?”

Yuka stared at the slight, blond, cherubic boy. This *couldn’t* be the bodyguard that policewoman was talking about! He looked about as tough as a Beanie Baby!

Her heart sank further as she saw her brother go over to the boy and high-five him, then say, “Omi. . .I want you to meet my sister, Yuka. Yuka, this is Omi. . .he’s going to be my bodyguard.”

“Hi!” Omi said, extending a hand to her for a shake. “Don’t worry. . .your brother’s in good hands. I won’t let any harm come to him.”

Yuka shook his hand, tentatively. “I hope not.”

“Omi-kun is trained in using several different kinds of weapons,” Atsuro said, seeing the look on his sister’s face. “And he’s been in situations like this before.”

“We helped guard the Japanese Olympic team,” Omi said.

“I. . .see,” she said, only slightly comforted.

“Ken-kun. . .Towa-kun’s bodyguard. . .is in the car,” Omi said, pointing. “We’re going to be camping out in Towa-kun’s apartment, it seems.”

“I’ve already warned him that Towa needs a *lot* of time in the bathroom in the morning,” Atsuro said.

He doesn’t look concerned about the fact he’s being guarded by this. . .creampuff, Yuka thought. I mean, he seems like a sweet kid, but. ..sweet is *not* what you want when lives are at stake! But. . .the policewoman *did* say they were a special undercover force. . .maybe he’s really a lot older and tougher than he seems.

She knew that she had no choice but to trust her brother’s life to this boy, and hope for the best.

“Well, we have to get them home,” Omi said. “It was nice meeting you, Yuka-chan. I’ll probably see you at tomorrow’s rehearsal!”

“Probably so,” she said.

Atsuro hugged her. “I’ll call you, nee-chan,” he said. “And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Towa patted her shoulder. “We’ll be all right, Yuka.”

She watched them get into the car and drive away, and heaved a deep sigh. Finally, Lucifer was achieving a small measure of success. . .doing exactly what they all had worked so hard towards all this time. . .and what kind of price came with it? A threat to their lives!

Again, she remembered the words of the policewoman. . . “The band members will be safe with these bodyguards. They’re a highly-trained undercover force, and know exactly how to deal with this kind of thing.”

Please, gods, she thought. . .let her have been right. . .

* * *

“I apologize for my limited sleeping facilities,” Towa said to Omi and Ken. “The couch opens up into a bed, but. . .it’s the only spare bed I have.”

“That’s okay,” Omi said, putting his duffel bag and laptop down in the corner. “One of us could always, um, sleep on the floor.” I’m not going to let them know that Ken and I intend to *share* the bed, he thought.

“So, Atsuro. . .where are *you* going to sleep?” Ken said, setting down his own bag.

“Oh, in the bedroom. Um. . .on the floor.” He hoped the two didn’t see his deep blush. I can’t have them know I’m actually going to be sleeping *in the bed* with Towa, he thought.

“You brought a big bag, Atsuro-kun,” Omi said, watching the other boy kneel on the floor to unzip a duffel bag of his own. “Do you have a laptop, too?”

“Um, no, actually,” the redhead said, reaching in. “Just my PlayStation.”

“Really?” said Omi, kneeling next to him. “You’re a gamer?”

“Well, I don’t have a *lot* of time to play. . .music always comes first for me. . .but when I do have time, there’s a few games I like.” He pulled out a small pile of plastic boxes.

“Oooh, Chrono Cross!” Omi said. “That’s my favorite!”

“Did you beat it yet?” Atsuro said.

“Oh, yeah! And then you can play all kinds of alternative scenarios. . .”

Towa emerged from the kitchen. “Can I offer anyone something to drink?”

“No, I’m okay,” Ken said. He looked over at where Omi and Atsuro were chattering happily, looking through the boxes of games. “They seem to be hitting it off very well.”

“Very well indeed,” Towa mused. “That’s unusual. . .he’s usually very shy around non-musicians.”

“Omi’s shy around *girls*, Ken said, sitting on the arm of Towa’s easy chair. “We have a lot come around our flower shop.”

“Flower shop?” Towa said, walking into the living room. “I thought you were police officers.”

“Only part-time,” Ken said, as smoothly as possible. “Special assignments. When we’re not doing that. . .we’re partners in a flower business.”

“So. . .you all live at this flower shop?”

Ken shook his head. “We used to. But we all have our own places now. The store was making enough money so that we could afford it. Besides. . .people *are* going to get suspicious of four guys living together.”

Towa gave a slight smile. “I imagine they would.”

Meanwhile, Omi had discovered the pile of DVDs Atsuro had brought with him. “This is my favorite movie!” he cried, holding up “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“Mine, too!” said Atsuro. “I saw it six times in the movies.”

“Beatcha!” said Omi. “Eight times!”

“And this is my *other* favorite movie,” said Atsuro, holding up “The Matrix.”

“Mine too!” said Omi. “And it’s Ken-kun’s favorite movie. We used to recite dialogue from it and drive Yohji-kun and Aya-kun crazy!”

“Oh, man, this is getting *scary*,” Atsuro said. “You don’t happen to play the guitar, do you?”

Omi shook his head. “My main hobby is my computer. Internet stuff, gaming stuff, some programming. . .”

“Really? That’s cool,” Atsuro said. “Wish I knew enough about computers. I’d set up a Web site for our band.”

“Oh, I could do that!” Omi said. “I’ve done a couple of Web sites. There’s an Iron Chef fan site I do with a couple of my Net friends. . .and a gamer bulletin board where people can post game reviews. . .”

Meanwhile, Towa and Ken were in the kitchen, sitting at the table.

“You live in a very nice apartment,” Ken said.

“It’s definitely the best place I’ve ever lived,” Towa said. “It’s felt lonely lately, though.”

“Why so?” said Ken.

“I got very used to having roommates. Yuki was living here for awhile after he had a falling-out with his father. And before that. . .Atsuro was living here. . .”

Ken couldn’t miss the softening of his voice, the tender look in his eyes when he said that. He obviously cares for this boy, he thought. How much, I don’t know.

“I used to live with all the other members of the. . .squad,” he said. “It was an experience. Especially when Yohji decided to spend all day in the bathtub. You had the rest of us all trying to break the door down.”

“You live alone now?” Towa said.

“Well. . .yes,” he said. But he didn’t. . .not really. He and Omi were together at night more often than not.

From the living room came the sounds of cheering. Ken peeked out. The boys had set up the PlayStation, and were currently engaged in some kind of contest that involved shooting hulking troll-like things with guns that looked far too big for any human arms to lift.

Omi’s enjoying himself, he thought. And that brought a small bit of pain. . .because he knew, at the end of the mission, Omi would have to leave these young people behind and never see them again.

* * *

Atsuro finished up in the bathroom and pulled a T-shirt on over his loose-fitting shorts. He went into the bedroom, where Towa was already in bed, clad in satiny-looking midnight-blue pajamas.

“I’ve never been in bed with you wearing *clothes* before,” Atsuro said, climbing under the covers. “It feels funny.”

“That’s true,” Towa said, laying aside the magazine he’d been reading. “But we’ve never had guests sleeping in the next room before, either.”

“At least I should be able to *sleep* tonight,” said Atsuro, snuggling close to Towa and laying his head on the blond’s chest. “I’m not going to be listening for every last little noise. . .”

“Last night was horrible, absolutely horrible,” Towa replied, wrapping his arms around his lover. “It’s an experience I never want again.”

“Me neither,” said Atsuro. “Gods, I always thought that having a few days where I could stay with you and not have to go to school would be heaven. Well, now I’ve got that. . .and it’s . ..the *opposite.*

“At least the police gave us protection,” Towa said. He gave one of his quiet smiles and stroked Atsuro’s hair. “You seem to be enjoying the company of our bodyguards.”

“Omi’s a lot of fun,” Atsuro said, yawning. “I’m so glad the police gave us someone. . .our own. . .age. . .” His eyelids started to droop, and his body relaxed.

Towa kissed him, softly. “Go to sleep, love. . .you need it. We both do.” He reached over and shut off the bedside light, and soon, all was quiet in the apartment.

About two hours later, something made Atsuro sit up in bed with a start.

A noise. . .from the living room. . .it sounded like. . .

Towa sat up beside him. “Somebody’s *screaming*!” he said.

“It could be Omi!” Atsuro said, springing from the bed and running to the door.

Towa jumped up after him and put a hand on his arm. “Atsuro! Wait. . .it could be dangerous. . .”

They opened the door a crack and peeked out. There seemed to be two figures huddled on the sofa-bed, and the screaming had stopped. A soft sobbing filled the air instead.

The two musicians crept out into the other room, slowly and tentatively. There was Omi, crying his heart out. Ken was cradling him in his arms, stroking his hair.

“Why?” Omi gasped. “Why wouldn’t my father pay the ransom? Why did he leave me to die?” He burst out in a fresh wave of sobs, his hands clutching at Ken’s T-shirt for dear life.

“Ssshhhh,” Ken whispered. “It’s okay, Angel. It’s all over. . .it’s in the past. You’re with me now. And I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you like that again, ever. I’ll tear them apart with my bare hands first.”

Atsuro watched, confused and a bit frightened. What was happening to his new friend? What did he mean. . .pay the ransom? Leave him to die? Was it just a nightmare? Or. . .was there something else behind it. . .

Ken looked up, slowly, and saw that their charges were watching them. And he saw the looks of shock and horror on their faces.

I was afraid this would happen, he thought. I should have known that unfamiliar surroundings would bring on the nightmares. . .it happened in Sydney, and every time we’ve had to stay in a hotel. . .thank the gods it was the one about the kidnapping, and not the one about his brothers. I could explain this one, but not *that* one. . .

Omi’s sobs were less violent now. Ken gently lay him back on the pillows and reached for his duffel bag, fumbling around for a couple of bottles. It was Manx who had tipped him off that a sort of herbal cocktail — valerian root and St. John’s Wort — would help Omi calm down and go to sleep.

“Can one of you get me a glass of water?” he asked Towa and Atsuro. “I’ll explain this later.”

Atsuro fairly flew into the kitchen, and when he grabbed the glass off the shelf, he noticed his hands were shaking. He filled it quickly and gave it to Ken, who was handing Omi two pills. Omi took the glass, giving Ken an look of gratitude, and drank.

“Guys,” Ken said, “can you leave us alone a couple of minutes? Then I’ll come talk to you about this.”

Towa and Atsuro exchanged glances. Just what *was* going on here?

“Sure,” said Towa. “We’ll be in the bedroom.”

They went back into the room in silence. They sat on the bed, but didn’t lay down.

“What was *that*?” Atsuro said.

Towa shook his head. “That didn’t look like any ordinary nightmare. Did you see his eyes? They were like. . .films I’ve seen of war veterans having combat flashbacks. . .”

Atsuro shuddered. He’d noticed, all right. What could Omi have possibly seen. . .or experienced. . .to make him look like that?

A few minutes later, there was a quiet knock on the door. Towa opened it, to reveal a haggard-looking Ken.

“Come in,” he said. “Have a seat on the bed. . .”

Ken sat down on the edge. How the hell am I gonna do this? he thought. I guess the best thing is to tell them the truth . . .just not the *whole* truth. . .

He took a deep breath. “I suppose you’re wondering what just happened out there. I know it looks frightening. . .but. . .well, he doesn’t have those nightmares as often as he used to. . .”

Ken stood up and began to pace the room, nervously raking his fingers through his hair. Dammit, he thought, why can’t I think of the right way to tell them? The words just aren’t coming. . .but then again, we never had to face a situation where we faced giving away any of our secrets before.

Finally, he just blurted it out. “When Omi was 11. . .he was kidnapped. And his family. . .they were, well, really screwed up. And his father wouldn’t pay his ransom.”

Towa felt Atsuro’s hand grip his shoulder as he just sat there, stunned. What kind of a parent would do that to their own child? Even one from a “screwed up” family?

“What. . .happened to him then?” said Atsuro in a small voice. His face was so white, it made his red hair look positively crimson.

“His uncle rescued and. . .adopted him,” Ken said, quietly.

“Did he ever see his father again?” said Towa, putting a hand over the one Atsuro had on his shoulder.

Ken remembered the mission where they had infiltrated Takatori headquarters, posing as security guards. . .Reiji Takatori had faced Omi one last time before he died, and told him, “You’re not my son. . .”

He just shook his head no.

Atsuro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Omi seemed like such a cheerful person. . .other than the nightmare, who would even suspect he had such a tragic past?

Maybe that’s what led him to become a special police officer at such a young age, he thought. . .to help other people who were hurt like he was.

“Anyway. . .every once in awhile, he has nightmares about it,” Ken said. “And when he’s in unfamiliar surroundings, it tends to happen more often.”

“Is he. . .asleep now?” said Atsuro.

“Yeah,” Ken said. “He took some herbal pills. . .St. John’s Wort and valerian root. The combination calms him right down. So. . .he’ll be okay now. He bounces right back from these nightmares, they don’t interfere with his job at all. I’ve seen him have one and bag a whole gang the next day. And once he’s used to the place where he’s sleeping, he won’t have another one. Just please, don’t mention this in the morning.”

“We won’t,” Towa said. “Is there anything else we can do for him? Or you?”

“Nah,” Ken said. “It’s under control. And I’m gonna try to get back to sleep. ‘Night. . .”

“Good night,” Towa said. Atsuro just nodded, still stunned.

After Ken had gone back into the living room, Atsuro wrapped his arms around Towa and hugged tightly. “Poor Omi,” he said, his voice still a bit shaky.

“I know,” Towa said, stroking his lover’s hair. “So much to go through, at such a young age. It’s amazing that he still seems to be stable.”

“His father must be a sick, sick person,” Atsuro said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. . .”

“I know.” Towa kissed the top of Atsuro’s head. “We’d better try to get back to sleep, love. You may not have to go to school. . .but, remember, we still have band practice tomorrow.”

The two got under the covers and snuggled up again. But neither drifted off to sleep immediately. Each was lost in his own thoughts about what had just happened.

There’s something. . .odd about those two, Towa thought. I have *never* heard of a special police force comprised of young people before. Granted, the police may not want to brag about such a thing openly, especially if their primary function was to be undercover work, but. . .one would think the existence of such a thing would leak out sooner or later, if only through the grapevine.

And Omi’s tragic past only added to the mystery. What on earth would lead a parent to sentence their child to death at the hands of kidnappers? Towa thought. It sounds almost as if the father set the whole thing up. . .especially the part about the uncle *rescuing* him. How would the uncle know where the boy was. . .unless he learned it from the father. . .

I have a feeling, Towa thought, that there’s a lot more to our bodyguards than meets the eye. If only I could figure out what it was. The flower shop business. . .it’s usual, but not unheard of. Some live houses we’ve played in were jointly owned by policemen, and some restaurants in this area are, too. It’s something else that I just can’t think of. . .probably right in front of me, and I can’t see it because it’s *too* obvious.

Meanwhile, Atsuro was thinking things of an entirely different nature.

The way Ken and Omi acted around each other, he thought. . .the way Ken held him after he had the nightmare. . .that didn’t look like two guys who were *just friends.* I could have sworn I heard Ken say to Omi, “I’ll never let anyone hurt you again.” And didn’t he call him “Angel”? And. . .Ken seemed *really* familiar with Omi’s nightmares. . .

Atsuro had never known another gay young person in his life. During the period when he was struggling with his own sexuality, he often felt like he was the only teenager with those kinds of feelings in the world.

Could it be, he thought, that Ken and Omi have the same kind of relationship that Towa and I do? It sure looks that way. But. . .how can I talk to Omi about it? Ken said not to mention the nightmare tomorrow. . .

He started to drift off to sleep wondering if he’d finally found another person he could talk about the deepest, most personal area of his life with.

* * *

Omi awoke the next morning feeling a bit shaky.

What happened? he thought. He looked around at the unfamiliar living room, Ken sleeping beside him, the glass on the arm of the sofa that had held the water he took his pills with.

Then, he remembered. The nightmare again. He curled into a ball, crossing his arms over his body and leaning over so his head was on his knees. Did they hear me? he thought. I seem to remember them standing. . .right over there. . .what did they think? Oh, gods. . .I hope this doesn’t affect their confidence in my ability to protect them. . .

He climbed out of bed, heading for the kitchen. Best thing to do, he thought, is just act normal. He opened the refrigerator and began poking around. . .might as well make breakfast for everyone, he thought. It’ll keep my mind occupied.

Several minutes later, Towa and Atsuro awoke to heavenly aromas. Coffee, eggs, pancakes. . .

Atsuro sat up. “Somebody made breakfast?”

“It certainly seems that way.” Towa got out of bed, reaching for a black bathrobe and tying it over his pajamas. Atsuro, who never had much need of bathrobes, just went into the living room.

Ken was folding the couch back up. “Good morning,” he said.

Omi poked his head out of the kitchen. “’Morning, Atsuro-kun!” he said, as cheerfully as ever. “Breakfast will be ready in just a couple of minutes!”

It’s as if nothing happened, Atsuro thought. Nothing at all. It’s. . .kinda strange. Almost surreal.

“Man- er, Officer Erika said she was bringing over schoolwork for both of us,” Omi said, starting to scoop up an enormous pile of scrambled eggs and put it in a bowl. “We can do it before your band practice and I’ll mail it off.”

Atsuro headed for the kitchen. “Schoolwork?” he said, wrinkling his nose.

“Yep!” Omi said, putting the bowl on the table, then picking up the lid from a platter of pancakes. He added a few to the top of the stack. “Hey, we don’t want this to keep us out of college, right?”

Atsuro picked up the platter and set it down beside the eggs. “I’m not going to college,” he said. “I’m going to be a professional musician.”

“Really?” said Omi, opening the fridge and getting out butter and syrup. “Not even music college?”

“Well. . .it’s just that. . .I *know* this band is going to make it, Omi. All we need is the right breaks, you know? And. . .we’re close now. I can *feel* it.” He opened up the cabinet where he knew Towa kept the coffee cups and added one to each place setting.

Omi smiled at him. “Hey, if you do make it. . .*when* you do make it. . .I’ll be able to say I cooked you breakfast when you were still an unknown. And all the girls will envy me.”

“Envy you for what?” said Ken from the doorway.

“Cooking Atsuro-kun breakfast, of course,” Omi said, walking over toward him.

Ken ruffled his hair. “Ah, I see. You *always* cook *breakfast* for guys you just met.”

“KEN-KUN!” Omi turned red. “I don’t mean. . .”

Ken laughed and patted Omi’s shoulder. “You *know* I’m joking, Omi. I know better than anyone you don’t have one-night stands.”

Atsuro watched them together. It *could* be just two buddies, he thought. But. . .there was a certain tone in their voices when Ken was teasing Omi. . .and the way Ken touched him, just now. . .it seemed. . .tender . . .

He was almost a hundred percent certain now that he was right. . .they were lovers. But how, he thought, do I bring it up to Omi?

Meanwhile, Towa was in the bathroom. Atsuro was not joking when he told Ken and Omi that Towa took a lot of time in there. But it was a necessity if one was to look their best. . .and Towa would not dream of going out of the house without every strand of hair or dab of makeup out of place. And it was doubly important he look good today. . .he had to go into the modeling agency to see if any assignments had come in. Modeling paid the bills until he could make a living from his music.

He finished brushing his hair and cleaning his face (with special moisturizing cleanser, of course). This would do for now. After he ate, he would take his shower, style his hair and put on his makeup.

He started to head out into the living room. . .when his foot bumped against something, almost making him trip. Of course, he thought. There’s bags all over the place from our houseguests. I’ll have to see if I can make more room in the closets for them.

Towa bent over to pick up whatever it was. . .and froze.

It was a black duffel bag, no different from any of the others the boys had brought. But what was peeking out of it wasn’t clothes, or books, or video games. It looked like. . .a weapon of some sort. . .

Hesitantly, Towa lifted the bag and looked in. It’s a crossbow, he thought. And. . .a pair of gloves of some sort. . .

Closer examination of the gloves made a chill pass through his body. There was some kind of metal on the back of them. . .steel blades, held in place by a spring-activated lever.

What kind of weapon is this? he thought. I have *definitely* never seen police use anything of the sort. It almost looks like the kind of thing you’d expect an assassin to use!

He slid the weapons back in the bag and put it on the floor. Thoughts were starting to whirl around his head. . .the youth of their bodyguards, the incident last night with Omi’s nightmare. . .and now, these non-standard weapons. . .

Okay, he thought. . .maybe Ken and Omi are too young to carry guns. In that case, the crossbow would make sense. But what about that glove thing? Perhaps it’s used in some kind of martial arts? But. . .those looked like *steel claws.* Like they were designed for no other purpose but to *kill*.

And he found himself thinking, again. . .who *are* these guys, really?

A peal of laughter from the kitchen brought him back to reality with a start. He could hear Omi saying, “You’re kidding? You haven’t seen it? Ever?”

“Nope,” Atsuro replied. “Never.”

“Ken-kun. . .did you hear that? Atsuro-kun has *never* seen ‘Giant Robo’!”

“Why do I have a feeling you’re going to do something about that?” Ken said.

“Atsuro-kun. . .you *have* to see it! It’s the best anime *ever* made! Look, on the way home from practice we’ll stop by my place and get the DVDs, and then bring them back here, and. . .”

Towa shook his head, trying to reconcile the concept of this boy who loved video games and animated giant robots with the deadly weapons on the floor and the shadowy past. It just did *not* add up. Something was wrong here. . .

He heard the boys laughing together again. Atsuro’s starting to get quite friendly with this Omi, he thought. I don’t blame him. He’s very likable. . .they both are, but. . .

Towa found himself feeling a flash of fear for his beloved. Who knew what these boys were *really* into. . .and what kind of people might follow them. . .

* * *

Across town, Yohji found himself behind the counter of another store. But not a flower shop this time. It was a relief to be away from the same old routine. . .the giggly teenage girls who were far too young for his tastes, the picky old ladies who went through the shop’s entire inventory four or five times before choosing a bouquet — usually the first one they’d looked at. . .

But this wasn’t exactly the kind of getaway he had in mind. His eyes moved over the rows and rows of musical instruments. He knew nothing about any of them. Geez, he thought, at least with the flowers I can fake it. Well, I’ll just sweet-talk the customers some and hopefully they’ll buy whatever they see in front of them.

“Looks like your lady cop told my boss that you were a temp worker, and you were taking over for the guy who’s on vacation this week,” Santa said, lifting the cover off a drumset on display. “I was hopin’ she’d just get me out of work, instead.”

“Is this place busy?” Yohji said, examining a rack of guitars behind the counter.

“Eh, depends,” Santa replied. “’Round the holidays, the place is insane. And graduation time. Whole buncha kids talk their parents into buying them guitars and drums for graduation presents. Otherwise. . .it comes and goes.” He hopped up on the counter. “Best part of the job is when we get chicks in here who want to be the next Shonen Knife.”

Yohji smiled to himself. “That part of the job. . .I can definitely live with.” And maybe, he thought, some of them will actually be of age.

“You just gotta make sure that everyone who comes in here leaves with one of these,” Santa said, pointing to a stack of printouts on the counter. “Those are the fliers for our show on Saturday. We wanna make sure we get as many people as possible! It’s our first live house gig in months!”

“Why months?” said Yohji, picking up one of the fliers and looking at it. The paper was bright red, with a band picture at the top, under which were the words, “Back from their TRIUMPHANT NATIONWIDE TOUR! LUCIFER!”

“Sakuya was being an asshole,” Santa said, hopping up and sitting atop the counter. “As if there was anything new about that. Some jerk at one of our shows yelled out that we were all looks and no talent, and Sakuya decked him. Then a brawl broke out.”

It sounds like the *asshole* was the person in the audience, not Sakuya, Yohji thought. “So. . .it got you banned?”

“Big-time. We couldn’t get arrested. Only gigs we could get were at some rich kid’s party. . .and then playing on some weird guy’s recording.”

This made Yohji snap to attention. He remembered what Manx had said, that the one thing all the bands that had been attacked had in common was they played on the Wundar X CD. “What weird guy?” he said.

“Some guy calling himself Wonder Man or something like that. Yuka. . .she’s our manager. . .she saw a notice tacked up on the wall of one of the live houses that this guy was looking for musicians for a temporary gig. So she called him up, and we went to his studio. . .” Santa shook his head. “Man, was he a strange ranger! Kept babbling on about ‘sound-art.’ And how everybody would know him someday.”

“Was there anyone else at the studio?” said Yohji.

“Nah. . .just him and us. He was the recording engineer, too. And then he recorded each of our parts, one by one. . .and he didn’t let us hear what any of the others had done. He said nobody could hear the complete piece until the world was ready. We were all like, yeah, whatever. Just give us the money.”

“Did anyone else you know play with the same guy?” said Yohji.

Santa shook his head. “They were all obscure bands. . .we heard that a whole bunch of bands who had a name on the live house circuit actually called him up about the gig, and he rejected them. Weird, huh?”

Weird, all right, Yohji thought. Maybe there’s some common link we’re missing. I’d better find out if any of the others talked to any of the band members about. . .

Just then, the door opened and a tall, shapely, college-aged blond girl came in. “Excuse me,” she said, “I was wondering if you had any portable Yamaha keyboards. . .”

Santa started to answer. . .but Yohji leaned over the counter, and said, “I’ve got this one. Allow me to help you, madam. . .it’s always a pleasure to see someone as lovely as you first thing in the morning. . .”

* * *

Aya sat at the kitchen table in Yuki’s tiny apartment, a cup of coffee in his hands.

He was glad that his charge was continuously on the phone, trying to promote the band to anyone who would listen. . .local music journalists, proprietors of other live houses, the disc jockeys on the nearby college’s radio station.

Aya didn’t feel like making small talk. Not that he ever did. It’s just that he felt even less like it nowadays, with his comatose sister missing.

Again and again, his mind returned to the moment when he went into her hospital room and found her gone, and a cross carved into her bed. He thought that he’d be able to give her a peaceful life, now that he’d gotten his revenge on Reiji Takatori. . .that she’d wake up, and never have to know her brother had been a killer.

But whoever took her had other ideas.

Somehow. . .it didn’t *hurt*. It never did. There was just that numbness that had been inside him ever since the day he’d been told that all of Crashers were dead.

He’d been a member of Crashers. . .the non-lethal unit of Kritiker, masterminds of Weiss. . .for some time after his parents were killed. It was probably the only time since that horrible night he’d felt anything resembling happiness. And it had come in the arms of his teammate, codename Knight, real name Yuushi Honjou.

He remembered the two of them suiting up for a mission together, Yuushi in his pure white, Aya — he’d still been Ran then — in his black.

“How come you’re always so serious?” Yuushi said to him. “Even your mission clothes are serious!”

Ran fastened his belt, not looking up at his lover. “Dealing with a terrorist group like Red Skies *is* serious.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” Yuushi said. “But. . .when the mission’s over, you *still* wear all black! And then. . .you don’t crack a smile. . .”

“I find little to smile over,” Ran said, picking up his katana.

“Okay,” said Yuushi, “you can be that way. But. . .it’s a shame you don’t know what they’re saying about you.” He picked up his own weapon, a whip with a blade at the end called a cundledargeon, and began to coil it.

“What *who* is saying about me?” said Ran.

“Oh, nobody. Just Pawn.”

Pawn — real name Naru Oharyu — was their 17-year-old explosives expert, a rather hyperactive boy with a strong mischievous streak. Ran didn’t think he *wanted* to know, but. . . “All right. What is he saying?”

“That we look like a pair of salt and pepper shakers. He said we look like we should be standing between the soy sauce and the napkins.”

That made Ran drop his mask a little bit. . .he felt an urge to laugh. . .

“You smiled!” said Yuushi. “See? I knew I could make you smile!”

He always could, Aya thought. I have no idea whether Naru actually said that or not. It *sounds* like something he’d say, but. . .getting me to smile was always a Yuushi specialty.

Until the day he’d been told that Yuushi was dead. He’d lost his last scrap of hope that day. It was then that he dropped the name Ran. . .the name Yuushi had whispered in his ear on missions, while teasing him, while making love. . .and renamed himself after his sister instead.

But then, when they were at the Olympics. . .he’d caught a glimpse of a young blond man dressed all in white. He’d tried to follow him, but he was gone.

I haven’t been able to track him down since, he thought. Was it really Yuushi? Or just a look-alike, and I was a victim of wishful thinking? I have to know. . .have to know the truth about him, and where my sister is.

Yuki came into the room, with two cups of coffee. “Good news,” he said. “I managed to line up an interview for the college’s newspaper for tomorrow. We’re making progress.”

Aya merely nodded. Yuki felt a bit uncomfortable. . .drawing his bodyguard into conversation, he’d noticed, was near-impossible. He’d stopped trying.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I have a few more calls to make. . .then, I’ll be done for the day.”

“Suit yourself,” Aya said, quietly. He didn’t mind. Not at all. And he wouldn’t, until he got his loved ones back. . .

* * *

Atsuro sat at the kitchen table, looking at Omi, deep in thought.

His friend had his head bent down over a textbook, intently studying. Atsuro was supposed to be studying as well. But he found it impossible to concentrate.

I want to ask him, he thought, about him and Ken. But. . .I can’t. . .I don’t know how.

The apartment was deathly quiet. They were all alone. . .Towa and Ken had gone to Towa’s modeling agency. At least Towa’s not letting the fact someone tried to kill us keep him from experiencing normal life, Atsuro thought.

He tried to turn his attention back to the book again, but he wasn’t comprehending anything. . .the kanji swam before his eyes like autumn leaves drifting through a pond.

Omi sensed something was wrong at the other end of the table. He could hear Atsuro shifting about, shuffling things. He could be just nervous because of what happened to him and Towa-kun, he thought. Or, maybe it’s something more.

He looked up from his book. “Atsuro-kun. . .are you okay?”

Atsuro’s head snapped up with a start. “Okay? Um, yeah, sure. . .um. . .why do you ask?”

“You just seem on edge, that’s all. Is there something you want to talk about?”

“No. . .not really. . .” Atsuro pretended to be intensively interested in the book in front of him.

Something *is* bothering him, he thought. He reached out and put his hand over the other boy’s wrist. “Go ahead, Atsuro-kun. You can talk about it. I’m a good listener. And I don’t like to judge people.”

Atsuro tried to think of a way to phrase what he wanted to know, delicately. . .

And then, the words just burst out of him. “You and Ken. . .are you, you know. . .together?”

That wasn’t what Omi was expecting to hear. He sat back in his seat. “Are we a couple, do you mean? Well, yes. . .we are.” It’s the first time I’ve told anyone that outside of Weiss, he thought. I’ve never even officially told Birman, or Manx.

“Because, well. . .Towa and I are, too. . .”

Omi leaned over toward him and smiled. “I kind of guessed. You can tell just by looking at the two of you.”

Atsuro felt heat rising to his face. “You. . .you can?”

“It’s hard to describe, but. . .looking at the two of you, it’s like there’s. . .a current. A kind of energy.”

Suddenly, Atsuro felt very, very relaxed, as if telling Omi had lifted an enormous burden from his shoulders. He pushed his chair back from the table a bit and slid down a bit. “I’ve. . .never met someone my own age who. . .well, liked boys before.”

“Neither have I,” said Omi. “Well, other than Ken-kun, of course.”

“How was it for you?” Atsuro said. “You know. . .finding out?”

Omi rolled a pen between his fingers. “I don’t think it was a matter of finding out. . .I mean, I always knew I liked boys. When I was a kid. . .I had fantasies about both girls and boys. It just seemed. . .natural.”

“I didn’t think about boys,” said Atsuro. “Not really. But I didn’t think about girls much, either. I just focused on music. Until I met Towa, and then. . .” He shook his head a bit. “Well, everything changed after that.”

“I know what you mean,” Omi said. “I worked side-by-side with Ken-kun for months before I realized how I *really* felt about him, but once I did. . .nothing was ever the same again.”

Atsuro picked at a piece of tape on his notebook cover. “Did you ever feel like . . .you know, wanting to tell the whole world about you and Ken? But at the same time, being terrified of what would happen if people found out?”

“I’ve felt like that a lot,” Omi said. “But. . .unfortunately, Ken-kun and I have to stay in the closet. We have no choice.”

Atsuro looked up. “Because of your police work?”

“No. . .more because of our flower shop.”

Atsuro looked puzzled. “The flower shop?”

“There’s a group of young girls who hangs around outside our shop all the time, and a lot of our business comes from them. They, well. . .” He looked down and blushed a bit. “They want to date us. And if they knew Ken-kun and I were taken, by each other. . .they’d stop coming around.”

“It’s the same thing with us,” Atsuro sighed, looking down at his clasped hands. “Towa and I. . .we can’t go public with it, because we don’t want to drive away any potential fans. So, we have to stay in hiding, and. . .” He sighed. “It’s kinda like having to lie all the time.”

“I know,” Omi said. “Unfortunately. . .that’s part of being what we are.”

Atsuro sighed. “Well. . .it’s not a *good* part.”

“But. . .you wouldn’t trade what you have with Towa for anything, right?” said Omi.

“Not for anything in the world,” Atsuro replied, leaning back in his chair some more.

“Well. . .that makes anything you have to go through worth it, right?” said Omi.

“It does,” said Atsuro. “It really does.”

“So. . .you and Towa-kun can sleep in the same bed tonight, it’s okay. I understand.”

Atsuro smiled. “And. . .you and Ken can sleep in the same bed as well. . .”

Both boys said in unison, “We already did!” then burst out into laughter.

I haven’t had a friend outside Weiss since Ouka, Omi thought. It never really crossed my mind. . .outside friendships are just something we’re not supposed to do. But. . .I like this boy. A lot. We have so much in common, it’s almost scary.

He tried not to think about what happened to Ouka. . .and, that by being Atsuro’s friend, he might be putting him in a similar danger. . .

Meanwhile, Atsuro picked up his book again. . . *now* he was ready to read. Life suddenly looked so much sunnier than it did before. . .even the person trying to kill them seemed miles away.

Finally, he thought. . .I’m not *alone* in being gay. There’s someone else my age who’s been through the same things I have. And it makes me feel. . .fully human again. . .

* * *

“Do they *have* to be here?”

Towa, Atsuro, Yuki and Santa stopped playing and turned toward Sakuya. Practice had gotten off to a good start. . .and then, their singer suddenly decided he didn’t like the presence of their bodyguards.

“They’re not *doing* anything, Sakuya,” Atsuro said. “It’s not as if they’re making noise or something like that.” He looked over to the other side of the room. Ken and Omi had been watching the rehearsal with interest. Yohji was just sprawled out in a chair, seemingly on the verge of falling asleep. Aya was leaning on the wall, staring out the window, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Having them here. . .they’re in the way,” Sakuya replied, his own expression as icy and unreadable as Aya’s.

“We can go outside in the hall,” Omi said, “if it’s really bothering you.”

“No, Omi. . .stay,” Yuki said, holding out a hand as if to restrain them. Turning to the singer, he said, “Sakuya. . .I know it’s something of an inconvenience, but. . .that policewoman said they had to stick close to us whenever we might be threatened. And here. . .in a public rehearsal hall. . .if someone’s after us, we’d be very easy to find.”

Sakuya shrugged. “If they’re going to find us. . .they’re going to find us. Bodyguards or not.”

“What the hell kind of attitude is that?” Santa said, storming out from behind his drums.

Omi leaned over and whispered in Ken’s ear, “Atsuro-kun said this always happens. Those two fight like cats and dogs.”

“Hell of a way to keep a band together,” Ken whispered back. “How come they hold on to this guy if he’s such a jerk?”

“Well. . .Atsuro-kun said there’s something in the way he sings. . .the way he performs . .that’s almost. . .magical.”

Meanwhile, the battle between the two bandmates was raging on. “Look, first you don’t give a shit,” Santa said. “You say the band is just a hobby to you. Now, suddenly, it’s so important that you *concentrate* that you can’t have a few extra people in the practice room?”

“Look. . .I didn’t ask for protection. And I honestly don’t see why those guys are going to make a difference.”

“But. . .they’re *bodyguards!* said Atsuro. “The police *assigned* them to us!”

“The police didn’t think it through well,” said Sakuya.

Ken and Omi looked at each other with “WHAT?” expressions. Yohji suddenly sat up straight.

“What?” said Atsuro. “Sakuya. . .what do you mean by that?”

“I mean. . .that no killer is going to be intimidated by them. Sorry, but. . .they don’t look like anyone who could deter a killer.”

Towa, who had been sitting calmly on the drum riser throughout this, began to wonder if he should mention something about the weapons he had found that morning. Those, he thought, would certainly deter a killer. Or anyone else who came along.

But he didn’t have a chance to say anything. . .because, suddenly, the one member of the bodyguard group who had been totally silent up until this point was advancing toward Sakuya, slowly. And Towa noticed a long, thin scabbard hanging from his belt. . .

“We are very capable of doing the job we have been assigned to do,” Aya said.

Sakuya waved his hand, dismissively. “Fine. Just leave us alone when we’re rehearsing.”

Aya fixed him with a steely gaze. “We *have* been leaving you alone. Do you think we *asked* for this mission?”

Omi reached over and gripped Ken’s arm. He knew Aya wouldn’t give away anything about the true purpose of Weiss to someone who wasn’t a target. . .but hearing the word “mission” spoken outside the confines of their headquarters was still unnerving.

Sakuya returned an equally icy stare. “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t. The police sent you because they didn’t think this case was worth sending professionals for.”

There was a flash of steel, and before anyone could comprehend what was happening, Aya had Sakuya in a hammerlock on the floor, the katana held to his throat.

An audible collective gasp shot through the room. Omi leapt out of his seat, shouting, “Aya-kun!” Yohji and Ken followed him. . .but all of them stopped just short of their leader, who had a look in his eyes that was steely and frosty. . .even for him. Santa also rushed over, drawing back a fist. . .but Yuki restrained him. Atsuro sank to the drum riser, feeling his blood turn to ice, his hand gripping Towa’s shoulder.

“Not professionals?” Aya said. “Not capable of handling killers? You have no idea. No idea at all.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Sakuya said, coolly, not making an effort to get away.

Omi rushed to Aya’s side, saying, “Aya-kun! We’re supposed to be *saving* them! Not *killing* them!”

There was a pause of a heartbeat, which felt like an hour, as everyone held their breath. . .

Then, Aya released him and got to his feet. “You have a great talent. Too bad you don’t have a great attitude.”

Sakuya stood up as well, rubbing his throat, but seeming otherwise unharmed. “Now that I’ve seen you in action. . .I could say the same thing about you.”

Everyone in the room breathed a sigh of relief. Aya went back to the corner of the room. Omi locked eyes with Atsuro, communicating without words how worried they had been about the situation, and how glad they were it was over.

Yuki knew that, as leader of the band, he had to bring this mess under control quickly if they had any hope of salvaging the rehearsal. He put his guitar down and said to the others, “Look, we’ll take five, then start again. Is that okay with everyone?”

“Yeah, sure,” Santa said, eying Aya warily. He didn’t know whether to congratulate the bodyguard on the way he handled Sakuya. . .or just stay the hell out of his way.

Nearby, Towa was also eying Aya, and thinking. . .

This clinches it, he thought. The katana. . .the way he went at Sakuya. . .combined with the weapons I saw this morning. . .This is no ordinary police force. In fact. . .this may not really be a police force at all.

He thought again of how close Omi and Atsuro had gotten. . .of the two of them laughing together at the breakfast table, playing video games. . .

And the flash of fear he’d felt for his lover’s safety came back, stronger than ever.

* * *

Omi sat at his laptop, which was set up on Towa’s kitchen table. Atsuro and Towa were in the living room, working on their composition. The sound of their voices and instruments were something of a soothing backdrop to his incessant work.

Ken came into the room, opening the refrigerator. He pulled out a bottle of strawberry Yogloo, and walked over to his lover, shaking it. “How’s it going, Angel?”

Omi sighed, rubbing his forehead just above his eyes. “It’s not. I can’t find any more information other than what Manx already told us. There’s no common thread whatsoever. . .other than the fact that they all played on the Wundar X recording. At least. . .none that I can find. . .”

Ken put his drink down and began to rub his lover’s shoulders. “You’ll find it. You always do.”

“I don’t know about that,” Omi said. “Whoever’s doing this. . .they’re clever. They leave *no* trace. Most of the ‘dark beasts’ slip up somewhere, but. . .not them.” He leaned back against Ken, closing his eyes and trying to relax.

Ken kissed the top of his head. “Why don’t you take a break?”

“Because. . .it’s important for me to find who’s doing this, Ken-kun. I know I’m not supposed to get emotionally involved with the missions, but. . .”

“But you like Atsuro and Towa. And you don’t want anything to happen to them.”

“Mmm,” Omi said, nodding in the affirmative.

This confirmed Ken’s suspicions. It certainly wasn’t the first time any of them had gotten emotionally involved in a case. Ken remembered all too well when his own girlfriend, Yuriko, had been one of the victims of the target.

He also remembered how he’d had to give up the relationship with Yuriko, out of fear for her safety. . .and concern that she’d find out the truth about him, that he was a killer. . .

It’s impossible for a Weiss to have a close relationship with a non-Weiss, he thought. Omi. . .I like these boys too, but. . .please, don’t care about them *too* much. . .I don’t want to see you hurt when you have to say goodbye to them for good when the case is over.

The music in the next room stopped, and Ken and Omi could hear the sound of instruments being put back in cases, and the voices of Towa and Atsuro speaking quietly to each other.

“Look. . .it sounds like they’re done for the evening. Why don’t you show them Giant Robo, like you said you were going to? And you can pick this up in the morning.”

Omi looked down at his laptop. I still have to carry on with this, he thought. I *have* to find out who’s doing this to them, and why.

But. . .he knew the words on the screen were starting to blur. He was starting to develop a headache. He’d reached his limit.

Okay, he thought. I’ll watch a little of Giant Robo. . .then come back in here and go back to work.

“All right,” he said, getting up from the table.

Meanwhile, Atsuro turned on the news as he and Towa pulled out the sofa-bed in anticipation of their guests coming back into the room.

“. . .said he wasn’t going to run for reelection,” the stoic-faced announcer on the screen said. “In other news, a group of right-wing extremists from America called the Omega Guard staged a demonstration in downtown Tokyo today, claiming that the Japanese are heathens who need to be converted to Christ. . .”

Atsuro sighed as he opened the hall closet and took out the bedding. “So many nutjobs out there,” he said.

“I agree,” said Towa, taking the sheets from Atsuro and starting to put them on the bed.

Nutjobs. . .a picture flashed through his head of that bodyguard with the katana at Sakuya’s throat. . .

A katana, a crossbow, and those spiked gloves. The types of weapons that would be used by assassins, not police.

The newsreader continued his near-monotone spiel. “. . .responsible for a series of robberies throughout the city. Police have made several arrests. . .”

The police have much bigger fish to fry than a small-time J-rock band being threatened, Towa thought, tugging the sheets into place. They *wouldn’t* assign a specialty force to something like that. Not with so much more going on.

And the question flashed through his head again. . .who *are* these people, anyway?

He remembered once, when he was sitting in a coffee shop with the members of his old band, Neon, and they had been talking about crime waves that had been sweeping the city. . .

“The police suck,” said Tetsuya, the group’s lead singer. . .and Towa’s boyfriend at the time. “They just let these people do whatever they please. Nobody is safe.”

“That’s why that vigilante squad is out there,” replied the drummer, Akio. “Because the police can’t do the job. Somebody has to.”

“What vigilante squad?” said Towa.

“Well, you know how all these criminals have been turning up dead lately? Blown up, burned, some of them found stabbed and slashed. . .well, there’s a group of vigilantes out there that’s doing it all,” Akio replied.

“How do you know this?” said Tetsuya.

“Everyone knows it, dude!” said Akio. “You hear people talking about it all the time!”

Towa waved his hand dismissively. “It’s an urban myth. Criminals kill each other in turf wars all the time. That’s what’s been happening. There’s no vigilante squad.”

“So *you* say,” Akio retorted.

Now, Towa recalled that conversation as he smoothed the blankets into place.

That vigilante squad. . .that urban myth. . .could it be. . .it’s *not* a myth? And. . .that the urban myth is going to sleep on this very bed?

He thought again of Omi and Ken. . .seemingly so sweet and innocent. . .but that could be just a cover. . .no, their personalities were genuine. Still, he thought. . .this could be just one *facet* of their personalities. . .they could be nice flower shop boys by day, and ruthless vigilantes by night. . .

Sakuya’s words ran through his head. . .that there was nothing about them that would deter criminals. Of course, Towa thought, there wouldn’t be if they were vigilantes. . .assassins . .. He remembered something he’d read in a book once: a weapon is meant to deter, something for killing is not.

He was snapped out of his reverie by Omi rushing into the living room and saying, “Atsuro-kun! I’m going to start the first episode in a moment! You’re going to *love* this. . .trust me.”

Atsuro laughed. “Oh, I trust you. I know you have great taste.”

If Omi *is* involved in something like that, Towa thought. . .then he’s in constant danger. And. . .he might involve Atsuro in that danger. . .

Suddenly, he felt more afraid than ever before.

* * *

Atsuro picked up the last of the Pocky boxes. There were several scattered throughout the room. He and Omi had been up until two in the morning, watching Giant Robo and eating Pocky.

It was so much fun, he thought. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun that wasn’t related to music.

In the background, he could hear Omi singing to himself in the shower. Ken was out at the moment, on a food run. Towa was in the bedroom, making himself even more beautiful than he was.

I almost wish things could be like this all the time, Atsuro thought. I sure as hell don’t like the someone-out-to-kill-us part, but. . .being with Towa, and with friends I care about all the time, instead of home, with parents who don’t understand me. . .it’s something like paradise.

Towa started to come out of the bedroom, and saw his lover cleaning up the living room, humming to himself.

He looks so happy, he thought. I hate the thought of having to tell him what I suspect, but. . .I have to. He has to know.

He approached the redhead slowly. “Atsuro. . .”

“Oh, hi,” he said, stuffing the last bit of foil packaging into a garbage bag. “We kinda got carried away with the Pocky last night. You should have watched it, Towa! It’s a great show! It’s got a really cool giant robot, and a martial arts monk, and a butt-kicking woman, and even the villains are cool, and. . .”

“I’ll watch the rest of it with you,” Towa said, sitting down on the couch. “Atsuro. . .I want to talk to you about something. . .while Ken and Omi are out of the room. . .”

Uh-oh, Atsuro thought. He doesn’t like that I told Omi about our relationship. “It’s okay, Towa. I told Omi about us because, well. . .he and Ken are a couple as well.”

“I’d guessed that,” Towa said, as Atsuro plunked down next to him. “No. . .that’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

“What is it?” Atsuro suddenly looked worried.

Towa took a deep breath. “Atsuro. . .I know that you and Omi have built up a friendship over the past few days, and that’s a good thing, but. . .there’s something I think you should know. Something I don’t have *definite* confirmation of, but I strongly suspect.”

Now Atsuro had a puzzled expression on his face. “Suspect? What’s to suspect?”

Towa slowly ran a hand through his long, wavy blond hair and said, steadily, “I saw the weapons they use yesterday. They’re not police weapons. They’re *assassin* weapons. And you saw what happened yesterday at the rehearsal.”

“Sure. . .one of the guys who works with Ken and Omi flipped out on Sakuya. But. . .well, Sakuya has that effect on people. You remember the brawl at the Salt Peanut.”

“The weapon he used, Atsuro. . .it was a katana. And there was something funny about this whole deal from the beginning, when you called the police. The fact that they didn’t send someone, but gave us a number to call if we needed help. . .and then, bringing in a special, young police force to watch us like hawks the next day. . .it just didn’t *feel* right.”

Atsuro suddenly leapt to his feet. “What are you saying, Towa? That you think Ken and Omi are actually the people who are trying to kill us? I can’t believe that!”

“No, no, love. . .I’m not saying that.” Towa stood up and put a comforting hand on Atsuro’s shoulder. “It’s just, well. . .have you ever heard people tell stories about a special vigilante force that takes care of the criminals who escape capture by the police?”

“Well, yeah,” Atsuro said, still visibly tense. “But. . .that’s just stories, isn’t it?”

“Maybe not,” said Towa. “Look, I’m not saying that it’s *definite*. But, if such a group exists. . .there’s a good to excellent chance that Ken and Omi are members of it, and that. . .they’re assassins.”

The words impacted Atsuro’s brain like a series of bullets. Assassins? he thought. Killers? How could Towa say that about them. . .how *dare* he insult their new friends. . .

But a second voice in his head, the voice of logic, was telling him that Towa was right, that the pieces had not entirely fit together from the beginning.

I can’t believe it, he thought. Omi wouldn’t do that. . .would he?

Towa noticed the younger boy had turned pale and was starting to tremble a bit. “Atsuro?” he said. “Are you okay?”

The feelings were churning around inside him, logic warring with his feelings for the other couple. . .

Finally, he blurted out, “Okay. . .so *what if * they’re assassins? What difference would that make? The world *needs* people like them!” He snatched up the morning paper, which was lying on the coffee table. “Look at the headlines today,” he said, pointing to the lead story. “Two girls raped in a park. Down here, at the bottom of the page. . .a triple murder. And the cops have no leads.” He flipped a couple more pages. “A group of religious fanatics from America trying to beat us ‘heathens’ into submission. . .a bomb found in a subway car. . .” He shut the paper and tossed it aside. “If someone takes care of criminals like *that*. . .are they *bad*?”

“No, no, not all,” Towa said. “It’s just that. . .people in that position are in *danger*, Atsuro. And I worry about you hanging out with them. . .you might attract the danger to yourself.” He drew his lover into his arms. “I love you. . .I couldn't take it if something happened to you.”

Atsuro embraced him tenderly. “Towa. . .I love you, too. . .and don’t worry, I’m safe. Heck, when I’m with Ken and Omi, I’m safer than I’d be normally. . .because, they *are* trained in handling emergencies. Like you said. . .we saw that last night.”

Towa kissed his cheek and forehead. “I hope so, love. And, having seen those weapons. . .I’m very glad they’re on *our* side.”

The bathroom door opened and Omi stepped out, combing his still-damp hair, clad in his usual shorts and a “Peace, Love, Linux” T-shirt. “Oh, hi,” he said. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“No,” Atsuro said, quickly moving away from Towa and blushing a bit. “Nothing at all.”

“It’s okay,” Omi said, a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll just go in the bedroom for a moment. . .I have a couple of calls to make, anyway.” He grabbed his cell phone from the coffee table and went into the other room.

Atsuro watched him go. It was so hard to think of his sweet, perpetually smiling friend, who loved video games and mecha anime, with a deadly weapon in his hand, taking down the hardest of criminals.

I definitely can’t ask him about it, he thought. Much as I’d like to. I’m sure if he’s in a vigilante group, they have an “if we told you, we’d have to kill you” policy.

And so, he was left to just think, and wonder about the real truth.

* * *

Omi hung up the cell phone, a slight frown crossing his face. He didn’t know any more now than he had before, despite the fact he had just spoken to both Yuki and Santa about the Wundar X recording sessions.

Both of them had pretty much told him the same story he’d heard from Towa and Atsuro earlier. The sessions were unremarkable, other than the fact that they’d recorded each part individually, and been forbidden from hearing each other’s parts. Which could easily be chalked up to the musician being an eccentric.

If only we could talk to other people involved in those sessions, he thought. But. . .all the other musicians are dead. . .

And then, it hit him. Of course! he thought. The *musicians* might all be dead, but. . .there had to have been studio personnel who witnessed the sessions!

He pulled out his Palm and looked up his notes on the case. The CD had been recorded at Big Bam Boom studios, a downtown operation favored by “indie” recording artists. Chances are, he thought, at least *some* of the people involved with Wundar X are still working there.

He pulled out his cell phone again. “Yohji-kun?. . .Can you do me a favor later?. . .Is there any way you can get down to Big Bam Boom studios downtown for a couple of minutes? That’s where the Wundar X CD was recorded. . .Just talk to some of the employees there, find out what the sessions were like. . .what do you mean, cover your shift for a *week*? Yohji-kun!”

Omi hung up and sighed. Well, at least Yohji had agreed to go down there. Omi hoped he wasn’t serious about the “if I do this, you’re covering my shift in the flower shop for a week” part.

* * *

Yohji took a look around the offices of the recording studio. It had “small-time operation” written all over it, all right. The walls were a dingy beige, pockmarked with water spots and crisscrossed by scratches. The waiting area had two leather chairs, the surfaces scratched and torn, patches of stuffing hanging out. The desk behind which the receptionist sat was heavily scarred with cigarette burns and gouges of indeterminate origin.

But the receptionist herself. . .aaahh, there was nothing wrong with *her* at all. Her tumbling waves of pale green hair almost glowed in the too-harsh fluorescent lighting, her pink-painted lips seemed perpetually puckered for a kiss, and her black long-sleeved T-shirt was just tight enough to be truly provocative.

Okay, Yohji thought. . .if this works out, I’ll definitely waive the Omi-takes-my-shift part.

He sidled up to her with the practiced slinky stride of an experienced seducer. “Hello, there. I’m wondering if you can help me. I’m with J-Rock Monthly. . .we’re doing a story on the Wundar X mystery, what may have led up to his murder. Somebody gave me a tip that I should come here, and. . .” He leaned over the desk, pulling his shades down so she could get a good look at his eyes. “It looks like I’ve *definitely* come to the right place.”

The young woman gave him a big smile, demurely hiding her teeth behind her hand. “I think you have,” she said. “What can I help you with?”

“Well. . .you can tell me your name, for starters.”

“My name? I’m Mayu. I’ve been working here about two years.”

“Ah. So. . .you saw the man called Wundar X. . .”

Mayu leaned back in her seat, giggling a bit, obviously relishing the attention this man was lavishing on her. “Yes. I was here for most of the sessions. He was a *really* strange guy. . . I mean, I’ve seen some strange ones, but he was downright scary. Used to go around yelling that his music was sound-art and that no outsiders could be allowed into his sessions.”

“And, did anyone get in?” Yohji said.

The girl thought for a moment, her fingers drumming on her ragged desk blotter. Then, she looked back up at him. “There was this one guy. . .he always wore a gray overcoat, and some kind of big ruby ring. . .he came to a lot of the recording sessions. He never stayed very long, though. . .just a few minutes, in and out.”

“Oh, really?” said Yohji. “You wouldn’t happen to know this man’s name, would you?”

Mayu shook her head. “No. He never really spoke to anyone. I think I could give you a description, though.”

“Great,” said Yohji. “Perhaps you’d like to do that. . .over a cup of coffee?”

The girl giggled demurely again. “I’d like that!”

Okay, Omi, Yohji thought. . .you’re off the hook. And we’ll probably get some useful information out of this as well!

* * *

At the music store, Santa sat behind the counter with his head resting on his hands, looking at the empty store through half-closed eyes.

He was bored out of his mind. They hadn’t had a single customer all day.

At his elbow was a cell phone. “I’ve programmed my number into it,” Yohji had told him before he left. “Call me if there’s the slightest sign of trouble.”

I almost wish whoever the hell is after us *would* come in here, Santa thought. At least it would break up the monotony.

He was also glad to have the brief time apart from his bodyguard. Yohji was a cool guy and all, but. . .having to be watched every second like a toddler was getting on his nerves. He wondered how the others felt about it. Atsuro certainly didn’t seem to mind. . .he and that little squirt who was assigned to guard him had bonded. Towa. . .well, *nothing* bothered him.

And Yuki was hard to read. Santa knew very well that Yuki was an expert at concealing turmoil under a calm-and-in-control facade. For months, his heart had been torn between tradition and ambition. . .and nobody in the band had noticed a thing.

Figures, Santa thought. We can’t get arrested in the live houses for weeks. . .we go out and bust our rumps on the road for a month. . .and then, as soon as we finally manage to get a gig, all hell breaks loose. . .

The ringing of the shop’s door chime made him snap back to the present. There was a man approaching the counter. . .a hulking gorilla with slicked-back black hair and no neck, clad in a gray overcoat.

“Good afternoon,” he said in a voice that was surprisingly smooth and genteel, given his almost simian appearance. “My daughter needs some strings for her bass guitar. Would you happen to have any?”

“Sure,” Santa said. “Over here. . .in this display case. . .”

The man walked over, glanced at the strings for just a moment, and pointed to a package. “Those.”

Hmm, Santa thought. He didn’t ask a single question. Either his daughter told him *exactly* what type of strings she wanted. . .or he doesn’t know squat about music, and is pretending he does in order to look smooth. I’ve seen his type before. They’re usually back the next day to exchange what they bought for the *right* strings. Ah, well, he thought. . .it’s not my problem.

“You got it,” Santa said, removing the strings from the case and bringing them over to the cash register. The man followed, and as Santa was ringing his order up, he noticed the pile of fliers advertising Lucifer’s upcoming show.

“Lucifer?” he said, lifting the top one. As he did, Santa caught the flash of something huge and gaudy on his hand. . .a ruby ring. That tears it, he thought. This guy’s a poseur. . .someone trying to impress people with how smooth he is.

“Yeah,” Santa said, taking the cash he was handed and making change. “That’s our band. . .we’re playing Saturday night. We’re pretty damn good, if I do say so myself.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” the man said, accepting the change. . .and Santa got another good look at the ring. He’s more pretentious than I thought, he said to himself. . .he’s even got something *engraved* on that ruby. What the hell is it? Some kind of funny animal with wings?

“You tell your daughter to come. . .and bring all her friends!” Santa said. “And have them bring *their* friends!”

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “I will. Goodbye.”

Santa watched Gray Overcoat retreat, and thought, geez, if that was my big dose of excitement for the day. . .then I *really* need to get a life.

Outside the store, the man walked about a half-block or so. . .then paused, looking at the flier again, studying it intently. He gave a businesslike nod, stuffed it in his pocket and walked away.

* * *

Ken walked down the street next to Towa, shifting the grocery bag to his other hip. I should have called Yohji and borrowed the damn car again, he thought. How was I supposed to know that he was going to buy half the *store*?

“I must say that it’s been very pleasant having the two of you around,” Towa said. “Since Yuki moved out of my apartment, it’s been too quiet. I’ve forgotten what it was like to have constant company.”

“How long was he your roommate?” Ken said.

“Not that long, really. A few weeks before we left for our tour. . .and then a week or so after we came back. Before that, Atsuro was living with me for about a month. . .I took both of them in when they had disputes with their families.”

“I see,” Ken said. “So you and Atsuro officially became a couple then?”

“No. . .after he went back to his family.” Towa paused, shifting his own bags to his other hand and brushing a few wavy blond strands out of his eyes. “We’d always been close friends. . .it was only after we were together all the time, and then separated, that we realized *how* close.”

“It was that way with us, too,” Ken said. “Omi and I had been working together for awhile on the. . .special police force before we became ‘official.’”

“Your Omi is quite a remarkable young man,” said Towa. “Atsuro has gotten very fond of him in a very short time. I’m glad. Atsuro had some problems adjusting to the idea that he was gay. He was feeling very much alone with his emotions for a long time. Befriending another gay young person has been great for him.”

It’s great for Omi, too, thought Ken. And that’s the problem. I’m going to have to talk to him tonight. I have to prepare him for the inevitable. . .at the end of the mission, Kritiker is going to tell him that under no circumstances can he see Atsuro, or any of the band members, ever again.

He remembered all too well what had happened to Omi’s last close friend outside of Weiss. He’d watched from the sidelines as Omi held the dying Ouka in his arms, screaming in agony, knowing that the bullet that killed her had been meant for him. For Atsuro’s own safety. . .he and Omi could not be friends after the mission.

They reached Towa’s building, and as Towa took out his key, Ken noticed a strange kind of pounding coming from within the living room. It almost sounded like a disco.

“What’s going on in there?” he said.

“I have *no* idea,” said Towa. “That is *not* the kind of music Atsuro would normally listen to.” He unlocked the door, and they went in.

There were Omi and Atsuro, and they were dancing. Rather, they were hopping from place to place on a big plastic mat on the floor, which had several circles and arrows on it. The mat was attached by a cord to the video game console, and the TV screen was showing an image of animated characters performing fancy footwork. Both boys were flushed and laughing. . .to look at them, you’d never know that one boy was being stalked, and the other was a professional killer.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Omi look like that, Ken thought. He looks so. . .carefree? No, that isn’t quite it. . .Omi seems carefree all the time, even if we have a mission staring us in the face. Relaxed? No. . .he’s better at relaxing than any of us.

Then, Ken knew what it was. For the first time, Omi was able to be a *teenager*. Watching anime, playing games, eating junk food with someone else his age. . .the things he’d always been denied before.

Omi launched himself at Ken like a rocket, throwing his arms around him. “Ken-Ken!” he whooped. “You HAVE to try this! We’re playing Dance Dance Revolution!”

Ken hugged his lover tightly, thinking. . .oh, Omi, I thought I’d never want anything more than to see you this happy. . .but now. . .it just hurts. Because I know this happiness will have to be taken away.

* * *

Ken, Omi and their charges walked into the rehearsal hall. At the other side of the room, Yohji sat with Santa and Yuki. They were leaning in to each other, seemingly conversing in hushed tones. Aya stood nearby, listening quietly.

Clearly, something was up.

As soon as he saw the others, Yohji said, “Oh, hi, everyone. Towa, Atsuro, I’ve got something important to ask you. . .”

“It’s about when we were doing the Wundar X recording,” said Yuki. “Do either of you ever remember seeing a man in a gray overcoat hanging around the studio?”

The two looked at each other, then shook their heads. “Only person I ever saw was that guy who hired us,” said Atsuro.

“Yes. . .same here,” Towa said. “Why do you ask?”

“I found out something at the recording studio,” Yohji said. “There was a guy in a gray overcoat with a ruby ring hanging around some of the sessions.”

“Yeah. . .and I think I saw the guy today,” said Santa. “He gave me the creeps. . .real pretentious, too smooth. But he looked like he could beat you up. And he had this flashy ring. . .with something carved on it. . .”

“What was it?” Ken said.

“Some kinda weird animal. Kinda like a cross between a lion and some kinda bird. With big wings.”

The members of Weiss exchanged glances. They knew all too well what that was. A gryphon. . .the symbol of the Red Skies terrorist group, who had attempted to assassinate the Japanese Olympic team.

“Have you ever seen that symbol before?” said Omi. “Like. . .somewhere in the recording studio? Or being worn by anyone you came in contact with while working on Wundar X?”

“Nope,” said Santa. “Nowhere.”

“How about you?” Yohji asked the others.

“I haven’t seen anything like it,” Yuki said.

Towa and Atsuro just shook their heads. . .but Atsuro couldn’t resist leaning over and whispering to Omi, “Did you ever notice that Yuki and Yohji sound almost *exactly* alike?”

“Maybe they’re long-lost twin brothers,” Omi whispered back.

“Okay, everyone,” Yohji told the band members, “I want you to keep an eye out for anything that looks like that. . .and if you see anything, tell one of us *immediately.* We’ve found our first real lead.”

“Sure thing,” Yuki said, sanding up. “Okay. . .I think we’d better start practicing. Tomorrow’s the gig. . .we want to get any last-minute kinks ironed out.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Santa said. “Look around the room. . .do you see Mr. High and Mighty anywhere?”

“I hope what happened yesterday didn’t discourage him from coming back,” Atsuro said. “We *need* him for tomorrow.”

“Eh, we can always get another singer,” Santa said, heading for his drums.

“No, we *can’t,*” Towa said, as he took his bass out of his case. “We *all* know that there’s no band without Sakuya. His voice is what holds all of our instruments together.”

“Towa is right,” Yuki said, plugging in his own instrument. “And I think we *will* see Sakuya show up, and soon.”

“What makes you so sure?” said Atsuro, looking up from his tuning pegs.

“Because. . .Sakuya knows in his heart of hearts how much we need him. And how much he needs us,” Yuki said.

Meanwhile, the members of Weiss were having a pow wow in the corner. “Definitely Red Skies,” Omi said. “And Manx had told us that Kritiker suspected an Estet offshoot was involved.”

“Which means Kritiker was wrong,” Ken said.

“Or. . .it *could* mean there’s a Red Skies and Estet connection,” Omi said. “Aya-kun. . .you’ve dealt with Red Skies longer than any of us. . .do you think that’s a valid theory?”

Aya paused a moment. His experience with Red Skies before Weiss was not something he liked to dwell on. . .because it brought back too many memories. Memories of Crashers. . .and his lost love, Yuushi. . .

“We were never able to establish exactly what their motive was,” he said. “An Estet connection is a possibility.”

“I’m going to take our records of Red Skies and cross-check them against what we know of Estet,” Omi said, taking his laptop out of his case. “We’ll see if I can come up with anything.”

“While you’re doing that. . .we’ll keep an eye on the band,” Ken said.

Aya looked for a moment at Omi setting up his machine, then intently typing away. . .Ken and Yohji settling into chairs near where the band was tuning up. . .

He turned and walked out of the studio, standing on the walk, looking up at the sky, which was making the transition from day to night. The pink velvet glow of the sunset was fading, mixing with hues of deep indigo and the first few flashes of starlight.

Aya tried not to feel. Because, in his true heart of hearts, he was a person who felt very deeply. When he loved someone, it almost always meant pain.

Day after day, I wonder if I’ll see Yuushi again, he thought. I almost wish he had stayed dead. . .because then, at least, I’d know for sure. I’d have closure. I don’t know if that person I saw at the Olympics is him or not. . .and that hurts. And every time we have to deal with Red Skies. . .it just brings back more memories of him, and it hurts more.

He pushed the feelings back. I can’t think of Yuushi, he thought. I have to focus on completing these missions. . .defeating Estet. . .and getting my sister back.

His thoughts were interrupted by someone bumping into him. He pivoted, with the lighting reflexes of someone trained to sense danger. . .and saw a dark-clad, black-haired figure with icy eyes.

The other gave a cynical smile. “We meet under the worst of circumstances all the time, don’t we?”

Aya had an urge to draw his katana on him again. Instead, he said, “I prefer to stay out of your way.”

“Well, then, we both feel the same,” Sakuya said. “But. . .I do have to say this. You *did* act like a professional yesterday.”

“I wish I could say the same for you,” Aya retorted.

Sakuya waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t consider myself a *professional* at anything. I just do things to keep me occupied.”

“Like this band?” Aya said. “You’re late for practice. That’s certainly not professional.”

Sakuya shrugged. “I don’t think I need as much practice tonight, so. . .I come later.” He started into the door.

Aya was about to make another retort, when he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

Another figure. . .on the other side of the street. . .clad entirely in white. . .

His heart sped up. There was only one person he knew who wore all white, all the time.

“Yuushi,” he said under his breath. He rushed across the street, heart pounding, frantically looking around. Nothing. He ran to the corner. . .no sign. . .

“YUUSHI!” he shouted into the night. No answer.

Did I really see him? he thought. Or is he a mirage. . .something I thought I saw, because I want more than anything to see him again. . .

No. I can’t think like that. The thing I want more than anything is for my sister to be brought back safe and sound. Yuushi. . .I just have to forget. . .

But he knew he never really could.

* * *

Ken finished up in the bathroom and came into the living room. Towa and Atsuro had already gone to bed. Omi was humming to himself, tucking in the last of the sheets and putting the pillows on the bed.

I have to break it to him now. . .I can’t let this go any longer, he thought. And how I hate to do this. He looks so happy. . .even happier than usual.

“Omi,” he said, “can we talk for a second?”

“Sure,” he said, hopping up on the bed and sitting with his legs crossed under him. “What’s up, Ken-Ken?”

Ken paced around a bit. He felt at an utter loss for words. . .just like when he had to tell Towa and Atsuro the cause of Omi’s nightmare. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “Omi. . .I know that you and Atsuro have become very friendly since we’ve been living here. . .”

“Oh, yes,” Omi said. “We’ve been having a *lot* of fun together. It almost doesn’t feel like a mission.”

Ken looked at the floor. “You know what’s going to have to happen when the mission’s over, don’t you?”

Omi started to say something. . .then realized what Ken was talking about. The thing he’d been trying to avoid thinking about. . .that damn Kritiker policy. . .

“I. . .I know,” he said, quietly, his hands clutching at the blankets. “I didn’t want to think about it, but. . .”

Ken sat next to him and put a hand on Omi’s shoulder. “Angel. . .you know Kritiker doesn’t make those rules up just because they don’t want us to have a life. We’re a magnet for trouble. Remember, Schwarz and Schrierent are still out there, looking for us. And we could be targeted by innumerable Red Skies hit squads. Plus, you don’t know how many associates of other targets might be out there.”

“I *know* that,” Omi said, his voice reflecting anger and pain, as he clutched the blankets harder. “But, Ken-kun. . .we’re *trained* in handling danger! Atsuro is *safe* when he’s with me!”

“And when he’s not?” Ken said. “What if one of these people finds out the two of you are friends? They might decide that the best way to hurt you would be to go after someone you care about. You’d be putting Atsuro in danger. And Towa. And the rest of the band. And his family.”

Omi put his arms up and around his head, as if to block out the harsh reality. “I wouldn’t be *open* about our friendship, Ken-kun! I wouldn’t have him visit me in the flower shop or anything like that! Just. . .come here every once in awhile. . .”

“And if you’re being watched? And followed?”

“Who’s to say we are?” Omi snapped. “Who’s to say that these people are constantly tracking us? Don’t you think if they were, they would have gone after us by now? Maybe you’re paranoid.”

“Maybe I’m NOT!” Ken said, leaping to his feet, struggling to keep from shouting. . .the last thing he wanted to do was wake Towa and Atsuro up. “Omi, we’ve both seen what happens to people from the outside who get involved with us! Yuriko almost died. . .and Ouka. . .”

Oh, no, Ken thought. I shouldn’t have mentioned that. . .but it was too late. He saw Omi’s face absolutely crumble, and the boy fell to the bed, face-first, wrapping his arms around a pillow. Ken felt like he wanted to die when he saw his lover’s small body start to shake with sobs.

“Omi. . .” Ken said, putting a hand on his shoulder again. But Omi shrugged the touch off.

“I haven’t *cared* about anyone since Ouka,” Omi sobbed. “Except you. . .and the other guys. . .I accepted a long time ago that I’d never be normal, but. . .but. . ..I just want to feel normal *some* of the time. . .”

“Oh, Angel. . .” He reached out toward him again, but pulled his hand back.

“I just want to see him every once in awhile. . .just to talk, play video games. . .”

I almost wish we’d never been given this mission, Ken thought.. He’d never know what he had been missing if we hadn’t. Now. . .he’s gotten a taste of being a regular teenager, and he can’t let it go.

He reached out again and gently touched Omi’s hair, and this time, Omi put up no resistance. “Ken-kun. . .” he whispered.

“Omi. . .I know how much it means to you, his friendship. . .”

“It means everything to me. I promise, Ken-kun. . .I’ve been at this long enough, I know the rules of the game. . .I’ll do anything and everything to keep Atsuro and Towa and the others out of danger.”

He means it, Ken thought. Omi knows more about the underworld and how it operates than some people three times his age. And. . .he’s *capable* of keeping them safe. And. . .so am I.

He found himself saying, “I’ll help you protect them.”

Omi looked up. “You. . .you will?”

Ken nodded. “If it means a lot to you. . .it means a lot to me, too.”

Omi sat bolt upright. “Ken-Ken. . .thank you. . .thank you so much. . .” His eyes were alight again, the happiness returning to them.

Ken opened his arms to Omi. “How can I deny you *any* kind of happiness at all?” he said.

Omi snuggled into his embrace, wrapping his own arms around his lover and pulling him close. “You’re so good to me. . .” he told Ken. He leaned over and brought his lips to his lover’s. . .a light brush, a feathery kiss.

Ken made a small purring noise in his throat as he returned the kiss, then moved his lips to the boy’s cheek, his temple, his ear. “Gods, you’re beautiful,” he whispered as he kissed and nibbled at the lobe, his hands starting to move slowly over Omi’s shoulders, massaging in wide circles, then down his back.

“Oooh,” he sighed. “Ken. . .that feels good. . .”

Ken knew that when Omi used his name alone — not the everyday “Ken-kun” or the private “Ken-Ken” — it was a sure sign that he was getting turned on. And Ken couldn’t deny his own mounting excitement. . .especially when Omi’s hands started to slide slowly down his chest as their lips met again, their tongues reaching for each other tentatively, then passionately, tangling and stroking.

They pressed their bodies together, arms tightening around each other as if trying to fuse themselves into one being. Ken felt himself flooded with a pulsing heat, an all consuming need to get this boy out of his clothes and touch, taste, explore. . .

The couple broke apart with a gasp, then sat for a moment, trembling, panting, clasping each other’s hands tightly.

Finally, Omi said, “They’re. . .right in the next room. . .Towa and Atsuro. . .”

Ken brushed a stray lock of blond hair out of Omi’s eyes. “I can try to keep quiet. . .can you?”

Omi nodded, still panting. “May not be. . .so easy, though. . .you’re pretty loud.”

“Loud? Me?” Ken said.

Omi giggled. “Loud enough that. . .I’ve seen the downstairs neighbors give us funny looks the next day. . .”

Ken laughed. “At least we gave them something to talk about. But. . .I *will* be quiet tonight, love. You can always put your mouth on mine if I’m getting too loud.” He nuzzled Omi’s neck. “Of course. . .if your mouth is busy doing *other* things. . .”

“Hmm. . .” Omi said. . .”Soo. . .what *kind* of other things?”

That tone of voice. . .seemingly so innocent, but with a hint that he knew *exactly* what Ken was talking about. . .

“I’ll show you,” Ken said. “But first, these . . .” he gestured at Omi’s clothing. . . “have *got* to go.”

Omi shed everything as fast as his fingers could fly. . .shirt, jeans, underpants and socks landing on the floor in rapid succession. “Okay,” he whispered. “Your turn.”

As Ken undressed, Omi ran his eyes over him. . .the sculpted athlete’s body, lean and muscular. . .A renewed shudder of desire passed through him, because he knew what every part of that body could do. . .he knew the feel of those hands on his manhood, the taste of those nipples under his eager tongue, the sensation of that shaft entering him, slowly. . .and the sensation of sliding his own hardness between those firm, rounded cheeks. . .

Ken took Omi into his arms, his tongue sliding along the younger boy’s lips, then darting in and out of his mouth. “Gods, look at you, Angel,” he whispered. “So beautiful. . .so perfect. . .”

“Ken,” Omi moaned, crushing his lips against the brunette’s as his hands reached around his body, grasping those sexy buttocks and squeezing them, hard. His fingers trailed along the cleft, and Ken shivered, struggling to keep from letting out a loud moan.

He answered Omi’s caresses by reaching up to his chest, finding the nipples and gently squeezing them between thumb and forefinger, then rubbing them gently in circles. Their tongues clashed and strokes as their hips began to pump, shifting their bodies slightly until their manhoods were touching. . .which sent a fresh wave of hot shudders through them both.

Their lips parted, and Ken ran his tongue rapidly down the pulse line of Omi’s throat. Omi writhed, biting his lip to keep himself from crying out. . .especially as the tongue swept over his chest, and further down. . .circling his nipple rapidly before lashing at it with long, slow licks.

“Told ya I was going to show you how to keep your mouth busy,” Ken whispered, right before drawing the hardened bud into his lips and sucking, gently but firmly. Now Omi couldn’t keep quiet a second longer. . .a tiny whimper escaped his lips as he pumped his hips, wanting Ken’s hands on his manhood, his mouth, anything. . .

Ken moved his mouth to the other nipple, savoring it. . .the feel of it hardening, peaking as he flicked his tongue over it, the way the boy under him shuddered as he began to suckle. . .His fingertips brushed over the nipple he had pleasured before, feeling the pounding of Omi’s heart beneath it.

Omi gasped, finding it harder and harder to keep quiet. What Ken was doing. . .it was flooding him with liquid heat, soft and silky and all-consuming. “We. . .we’re not gonna. . .be able to. . .” he gasped.

Ken raised his head. “Keep quiet? That’ll be no trouble at all.”

“I. . .don’t know if I can,” Omi panted.

“Yes, you can. . .both of us can,” Ken replied. “I’ll show you. . .”

He quickly turned his body around so that his head was at Omi’s manhood, and he was straddling his lover’s shoulders.

“See?” he said. “We *both* keep our mouths full!”

Omi giggled. “That’ll work.”

He reached up and gently took Ken’s erection in both hands, stroking lovingly, reverently along its length. . .then caressing the head, marveling how the texture was different here. . .He raised his head and began to stroke his tongue along the shaft. . .

. . .just as Ken slipped just the head of Omi’s hardness between his lips, running his tongue over it, then sliding it out. . .kissing it, gently, licking in spirals as his hand cupped the sac beneath, gently massaging.

Ken opened up and took Omi in, bit by bit. . .and felt the boy’s mouth answer him, envelop him, devour him. They both paused for a second, just sucking gently. . .then, Ken began to move him in and out, in and out, taking him in deeper with each thrust. . .

As Ken moved faster, so did Omi, opening wide to take in as much of him as he could, rubbing him against the roof of his mouth, then taking him out, lashing the head with his tongue, and sliding it back in. Warm pleasure was building and building within Omi, lost in the deliciousness of what Ken was doing to him, and what he was doing to Ken. . .everything was heat and wetness and velvety softness, sensation on top of sensation. . .

Ken sucked harder, faster, he could feel Omi getting close, so close. . .and he felt hot ecstasy swelling within him, too, threatening to burst any second. . . small, quiet moans and whimpers came from both boys as their bodies writhed, mutely begging each other for fulfillment, for release.

Omi was the first to stiffen, then shudder violently, one wave after another of delicious heat flooding his entire body and soul. His hips raised off the bed, pushing himself further into Ken’s mouth, and Ken sucked at him hard, wanted to draw out every last little drop of essence. . .

And then, as soon as Ken had swallowed, he felt the starburst deep within his being, and he tossed his head back, a hand over his mouth stifling the cry as the delicious spasms wracked him, again and again. He thought he was never, ever going to stop coming, that he’d spend eternity suspended in sweet agony. . .but then, it ebbed, slowly, and he sagged atop Omi, panting, sweating, completely spent.

Somehow, he found the energy to roll off the boy and move onto the pillows, and Omi lay beside him, kissing him tenderly.

“Gods. . .you are *so* good, Angel,” Ken whispered. “I mean it.”

“You’re pretty good, yourself,” Omi replied.

Ken pulled him close, laughing. “I don’t *think* we woke them up.”

“They’d probably have been out here demanding to know what the noise was,” Omi said, resting his head on his lover’s chest.

“And we could have asked them to join us,” said Ken.

Omi’s head snapped up, eyes wide as saucers. “KEN-KUN!” he said. “I wouldn’t even *think* of. . .”

“Ssshhh,” Ken said, putting a finger over Omi’s lips. “Don’t worry. . .I was only kidding. Towa and Atsuro are nice guys. . .and gorgeous ones. . .but I only want *you.*”

Relieved, Omi snuggled down against Ken’s chest again. “And I only want you, as well. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

They snuggled into each other’s arms and fell asleep.

* * *

In a wealthy area of town, a limousine pulled up to a huge house which was built within the last 20 years, but was designed to look like an ancient American mansion. . .right down to the carefully placed cracks in the brickwork and ivy on the walls.

A hulking form got out of the car, hunching his shoulders within his gray overcoat. This was the worst part of his job. . .dealing with those wealthy old bats. The original organizers of Red Skies would absolutely *die* if they knew they were now taking money from people they would have considered “pigs.”

He walked up to the door and rang the bell. It opened a crack. . .then wider. He walked into the living room, inhaling the distasteful smell of mothballs and miso soup that always seemed to cling to the wall. Old ladies were old ladies, no matter how rich and powerful.

Sitting in an easy chair by the fireplace was a woman who was somewhere between 70 and a hundred, steel-grey hair drawn back in a severe bun, wearing an equally severe houndstooth business suit.

“Mr. Nishioka,” she said. “Come in and have a seat.”

Kouichi Nishioka slouched into the room, plopping into the matching easy chair opposite hers. I’m surprised there’s not a thousand cats running around all over the place, he thought.

“Is it done?” the woman said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Nishioka replied. “We’re all ready. It’s going down tomorrow night.”

“Excellent,” the woman said. “Estet is quite pleased with the work your group has been doing lately. We were a little concerned after the failure of the Olympics mission, but you have restored our faith.”

The Olympics mission was still a sore spot with Nishioka. Their hit squads had ended up dead all over the place. Those damn counterassassins had gotten them again. Every time Red Skies tried to do something important. . . *they* were there.

“Yeah, well. . .let’s just say that the Olympics fiasco thinned out the heard. We’ve only got our best people working now,” he told her.

“Thinned the heard,” she said, a smile playing at her cracked, overly-painted lips. “I like the way you think. Continue the way you’re going now, Mr. Nishioka, and I will see to it that when our Master returns in glory, you will be richly rewarded.”

Hell with the mystical mumbo-jumbo, lady, he thought. Just keep forking over the bucks. He still found it hard to believe that Red Skies. . .one of the most feared guerilla groups of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Japan’s answer to the Weathermen. . .had been reduced to a hit squad for a bunch of nutty old devil worshippers. They even had to wear stupid ritualistic rings. . .which they’d added their own gryphon logo to. . .in order to impress the old bats. But it was necessary to get the capital to keep their anarchist activities going.

“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “So. . .when do we get our payment?”

The woman bristled, sitting poker-straight in her chair. “You get your *payment* when you always do. At the conclusion of the mission.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” he said, slumping back down in the chair.

“Mr. Nishioka. . .we are *not* going to pay for a failure. Even *we* don’t have an unlimited source of capital. Come back to us tomorrow night, when everything is over. . .and we’ll talk again.”

It was a signal that the interview was over. Nishioka got up, bobbed the top half of his body in something resembling a bow, and hightailed it for the door.

The limo was still outside. He got in and gave an address to the driver. There were still some last-minute preparations to make. . .so they could be sure they got their money.

I hope they *do* raise their damn devil soon, he thought, so they can give us a bunch of cash and we never have to see them again. He winced as he again thought about how far the group had fallen since their hippie terrorist glory days.

I hope the devil chews that old bat right in half, he thought.

* * *

The Rat Trap was just like so many of the other live houses they had played in. . .a too-small stage, a variety of neon signs extolling Asahi and Yebisu and Sapporo on the walls, a long bar tended by grizzled middle-aged men in the back.

But the members of Lucifer hadn’t seen the inside of a live house in so long, they thought it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen.

“Toss me that cord,” Atsuro called back to Santa, who was busy fastening a cymbal in place. “Hey, what’s wrong? You look kinda pissed off.”

“Did you hear who’s on the bill with us?” said Santa. “Desperate Teenage Lovedolls! You know what that means. . .we gotta put up with Tommy Hairball.”

“Who’s Tommy Hairball?” said Omi from his post in front of the stage.

“The singer for that band,” said Atsuro as he plugged in his guitar. “His real name is Tetsuyo. He’s got bad ‘80s Motley Crue hair. And he’s a real jerk. Santa’s had a couple of run-ins with him.”

“The son of a bitch spilled a whole beer down my back! ON PURPOSE!” Santa said, hauling a tom-tom into place.

“You had just called him an asshole with a stick up his butt,” said Yuki, calmly, as he sat at the edge of the stage tuning his own guitar.

“Yeah, but that’s because he said my playing sounded like someone bouncing a Superball on the drums!” Santa jumped onto his drumstool, grabbed his sticks and began pounding out a furious riff, as if to prove Tommy Hairball wrong. . .or as if his drums were various parts of the singer’s anatomy.

“Santa seems to have a *problem* with arrogant singers,” Ken whispered to Omi. Omi giggled.

“Okay, I think we’re just about ready to go,” Yuki said, getting to his feet and starting to move across the stage. . .when his foot caught on something. He stumbled and barely caught himself before tumbling face-first to the floor.

“Yuki!” Towa said, reaching out to help steady his friend. “Are you all right?”

“Caught my foot on something,” he said. “I think one of the floorboards came loose. . .”

Alarm bells instantly went off in Omi’s head. He jumped onto the stage. “Everyone out of the way!” he said.

“Omi?” Atsuro said. “What’s going on?”

Omi turned to Ken. “Ken-kun. . .go to the doorway and get Aya-kun and Yohji-kun. Yuki-kun. . .can you show me the exact spot where you tripped?”

Despite the situation, Yuki couldn’t help but feel charmed by the fact that this boy used “-kun” even for people he had just met. “Sure. . .it’s right *here.*

Omi jumped up on the stage and knelt next to the spot, peering closely at the floor. “Aya-kun!” he said. “Can you give me a hand here?”

The master of the live house, a bulky, middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, rushed over to the stage. “Hey! What’s going on here?”

“We’re special police officers,” Ken said, reaching into his jacket for the badge Manx had given him for just such a situation. “We have reason to believe that the stage has been tampered with.”

“TAMPERED?” the master said, watching in horror as Aya pried the board up with his katana.

Yohji and Omi both peered into the opening beneath. “Just as I thought,” Omi said.

“What’s going ON here?” the master said, leaping onto the stage. “Police or no police, you’d better have a damn good explanation for this!”

Yohji pointed into the space under the stage. “Is this a good enough reason for you?”

The man looked into the hole. . .and saw what looked like a bunch of blobs of clay. “What the hell is that?”

“Enough explosives to blow this place sky-high, several times over,” Yohji replied.

Atsuro reached over and gripped Towa’s hand. Santa just said, “Holy SHIT. . .”

Yuki stood rooted to the spot, thinking. . .if I hadn’t tripped. . .gods, I don’t want to think about it. . .

“Is there a basement, or crawlspace?” Omi said. “I need to sweep for more bombs.”

The master just mutely pointed him toward a door behind the bar. Once Omi had disappeared, he said, “Well, that does it. . .I have to shut down for the evening, lose a night’s business. . .”

“No, you’re not going to,” Aya said, replacing the plank in the stage floor. “The show will go on as scheduled.”

“WHAT?” the master said. “Are you people crazy?”

“We’re going to make sure the place is absolutely safe,” Ken said. “And then, we’ll stake it out tonight and catch the people who did this.”

“They’ll come here tonight to make sure their plan worked,” Yohji added. “They always do.”

Ken looked up at the band members. “Well. . .how about you? Do *you* want to go ahead with the performance?”

They all looked at each other. There was risk involved, but. . .hadn’t *anything* been risky ever since this all began?

Just then, another voice from in front of the stage said, “Weren’t you the people saying a few days ago that if we let them shut us down, they’ve won?”

“Where the hell have you been, Sakuya?” Santa said.

The singer shrugged. “I had things to do. And. . .it looks like I didn’t miss much.”

“Just the fact that someone is trying to *blow us up*,” Atsuro said, moving a bit closer to Towa. Towa put a hand on his shoulder, wishing like hell he could embrace him closely. . .but he couldn’t, not in front of everyone.

“So someone tried to blow you up,” Sakuya said. “And they didn’t succeed. We go on.”

“Easy for *you* to say,” Santa said, stalking to the edge of the stage. “You’re not their target. You weren’t involved with that Wundar X crap. You. . .”

“I would have been right on that stage with the rest of you when the bombs went off,” Sakuya said. “It’s as much my call as any of yours.”

There was a pause. Then, Yuki said, “He’s right. We’d resolved the other day not to give in to them. Canceling. . .would be doing just that.”

“I’m still in,” Atsuro said.

Towa nodded. Santa looked around a moment, threw up his hands, and said, “What the hell.”

“So,” Sakuya said, “as soon as the police inform us that everything is safe. . .we really should do that sound check. We want our return gig to be our best ever, don’t we?”

The others exchanged looks. They might have some problems, but. . .it *was* still their return gig. The one where they were going to prove to the live house owners that they were *back*, to stay.

Omi came back out from the basement. “I removed a whole bunch,” he said. “Don’t worry. . .it’s perfectly safe now!”

And I made doubly sure of that, he thought. I had to be sure that Atsuro, and Towa, and the others would be in *no* danger at all.

“Well, then,” Yuki said, picking up his guitar again, “should we pick up where we left off?”

* * *

A steady crowd was streaming into the live house. Word had gotten around that Lucifer was back, and that they’d gotten even better during their time away from Tokyo.

Some came to see if the rumors were true. Others came out of sheer curiosity, to see this band that had managed to get themselves completely thrown out of the live houses — something that didn’t happen very often.

Others had come for very different purposes.

Kouichi Nishioka surveyed the troops he had gathered in the woods out back. He’d lied to the old bat. . .the Olympics disaster *hadn’t* narrowed Red Skies down to its very best hit squads. They were basically down to whatever cheap-ass punks they could recruit. But this group, at least, could shoot accurately. Nowadays, that was saying a lot.

“I want you to keep a careful watch on the place,” he told them. “When the bombs go off. . .which should happen during the headliners’ act. . .you move in and start shooting. I don’t want *any* survivors left in the area.”

“What happens if the bombs *don’t* go off?” said a scraggly-haired, snaggle-toothed youth in a leather jacket that had seen *far* better days. So had its wearer.

“You start shooting anyway,” Nishoika snapped. “What, do you doubt that they’ll go off? I had people a hell of a lot more competent than the likes of you put them in this morning. Now just *do it*!”

He turned and stalked away, muttering to himself under his breath. It wasn’t like that in the good old days, he thought, when we had a *cause*. Then, we had foot soldiers who had *brains*.

Once again, he recalled the days when they didn’t need money. There always seemed to be free-flowing cash in those days. American rock stars were all too happy to make “charitable donations” to any kind of radical group. Red Skies was *hip*, both in their own country and abroad. They were going to stick it to *the man* in Japan, just like their brothers in America.

But now. . .they had to prostitute themselves to old bitches who should have been put out to pasture years ago. The irony made him want to vomit.

Someday, he thought, I swear I’m gonna blow those dried-up hags up *myself*.

He turned around and took one last look at his hit squad, then continued on his way.

In the tree above the group, two figures crouched, barely breathing. The slightest movement would give them away. . .and that would be fatal. They listened very, very carefully until they heard the last footsteps retreating, the last rustle of leaves.

Then, one of them whispered into the headset he was wearing, “Abyssinian. . .this is Bombay. The targets are headed toward the live house, with orders to kill all occupants.”

“Affirmed,” the reply came. “We’re stationed at the doorway.”

“We’re coming to back you up,” the first replied. “Bombay out.”

He gave a hand signal to his companion, and the two leapt gracefully out of the tree, landing on their feet as expertly as gymnasts.

“Over there,” Omi whispered to Ken. “Be ready to strike at any moment.”

“You’ve got no worries about that,” Ken said, flexing his fist to bring the steel claws springing to deadly attention.

* * *

Backstage, Atsuro sat cradling his guitar, absently plucking the strings.

I should be happy right now, he thought. I should be psyched to go on stage, but instead, I’m just. . .scared. What if Omi didn’t get all of the bombs? It would just take one to blow this place sky-high. . .

Towa sat next to him, putting an arm around his shoulders and giving him a quick squeeze. “Santa just had another run-in with the so-called Tommy Hairball. Expect him to come stomping back here any second.”

“Mmm,” Atsuro said, turning his eyes back to his instrument.

I can feel the tension in those shoulders, Towa thought. “Atsuro. . .do you really want to do this gig?”

“Of course I do,” his lover replied. “We’ve been waiting for this for months, right? Ever since the Salt Peanut thing. . .”

“But you’re afraid,” Towa said, gently brushing Atsuro’s red bangs away from his eyes.

He knows me too well, Atsuro thought. He just nodded.

“We could still back out, if you don’t feel safe,” Towa said.

“No,” Atsuro said. “I’m not letting the other guys down. If we back out now. . .what’s it going to do to our reputation? We worked so hard to get it back. . .”

“There are things more important than our reputation,” Towa said. “Like. . .your safety. And peace of mind.”

“I know,” Atsuro replied. “But, I feel like I. . .I *have* to do this. Like Yuki said. . .if we give in, they’ve won.”

Stubborn as ever, Towa thought. That kind of determination will make him a major success someday. Of course. . .it could also get him into trouble.

“Just remember, love,” he said, “whatever you decide to do about tonight. . .I’ll support you.”

“Towa. . .” Atsuro leaned over, putting a hand at the back of his lover’s head, and leaned over, starting to bring their lips together. . .

And at that moment, Santa stormed into the room like a raging bull surrounded by red flags.

“That ASSHOLE!” he shouted. “You wanna know what he called me? A bigmouth with no talent! He said I should open my mouth again when I lean to *play*! Yeah, right, he should talk about no talent! That screeching of his sounds like a cat being tortured with hot knitting needles! When I get my hands on him, I’m gonna. . .”

Towa and Atsuro looked at each other and smiled. Santa was certainly acting like nothing was wrong. Perhaps they had nothing to worry about after all. . .

* * *

In the shadows near the back door, Yohji kept a careful watch out for anything suspicious. Every cell of his being was craving a cigarette, but he didn’t dare light up. I’m going to smoke half a damn pack when this mission is over, though, he thought.

He looked across from him, where he could barely make out Aya, his face the usual unreadable mask, one hand on his katana, ready to draw. Wonder if he’ll be glad when this is all over, Yohji thought. Probably not. He doesn’t seem to have any feelings about the missions at all. Long as he gets his payment. . .

Personally, Yohji thought, he’d be very happy. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Santa, or any of the others. But he missed the comfortable confines of their flower shop. After all, it drew a lot more ladies than that music store.

He knew that somewhere, in the back of his mind, he was always hoping that a familiar figure would come walking into the store. . .the woman that logic told him he should give up on, because she was with the enemy now. . .his Asuka. But he would never give up hope that she would leave Schrient, and come back to him. And again, he felt that ache deep inside him that he could never fill with any number of women.

A small noise snapped him out of his thoughts. . .a tiny rustle that a normal person would never perceive. When one was trained to detect the smallest movements, though, it sounded as loud as an ambulance siren.

Sure enough, out of the corner of his eye, he detected the tiniest flicker of movement. . .He sprung instantly into action, reaching for his watch and triggering the spring that would bring his weapon to his hand. Now the other figure was becoming more distinct. . .he saw a hand reaching for a gun. . .

The thug never had a chance. Before he could pull it out of its holster, Yohji flung his garotte, wrapping it around the target’s neck.

“Think you’re going to crash the concert that way?” Yohji said. “Think again.” A jerk on the wires, a croaking cry. . .and the target slumped to the ground. The sound of steel cutting into flesh not too far away told him that Aya had also disposed of his first target. . .and then, a second.

Yohji was about to remove his wires when he felt something cold and hard poke into his ribs. “Who the hell are you?” a rough voice barked. “Don’t even THINK of moving.”

Meanwhile, Ken and Omi were making their way toward the other two, when they also found themselves looking at the wrong end of a gun.

“I don’t know who the FUCK you are,” said the tough with the bad teeth, bad hair and bad jacket, “but this is OUR mission.”

“Funny,” Omi said, “I thought this was *ours*.”

“Oh, *yeah*?” the thug said. “You don’t know who we *are*, do you? We are RED SKIES!” He brayed the phrase like a child playing superhero.

“The FUCK you doin’’, Ishii?” yelled a voice from further on in the woods. “This ain’t no video game!”

The voice distracted the thug for a split second. . .but it was enough. Omi flipped his wrist, bringing a dart concealed in his sleeve into his hand, and hurled it. It impacted with a thud, and the target dropped to the ground.

“Oi!” shouted the second tough, rushing toward his fallen comrade. “What the HELL. . .” But he didn’t get a chance to complete the sentence, because he ran straight into the business end of Ken’’s bugnuks. Slash, and slash, and. . .it was over.

Omi ran toward the back door. . .to see Yohji being held at gunpoint. Raising his crossbow, he fired an arrow. . .but didn’t get a chance to see if it impacted, because he was tackled from behind and hit the ground hard, the wind rushing out of his lungs in a huff.

“What’s this, pretty boy?” said a gravely voice behind him as the cold steel of a knife was pressed into his throat. “You think you’re gonna mess with our fun?”

Omi struggled, but the knife just pressed in harder. . .he could feel a trickle of blood start to run down his neck. . .

And then, the knife dropped, suddenly, and his assailant went stiff. Omi turned, to see Aya pulling his katana out of the corpse.

“There should be one more,” Aya said.

Omi nodded, getting to his feet. Both of them stood very still, their eyes and ears peeled. . .

And then, Omi heard the sounds of fighting a few yards away. He crept toward the noise, cautiously.

There was Ken, trying to slash with his bugnuks at a long-limbed man with a blond crewcut, who had the ducking and dodging skills of an expert martial artist. Ken thrust, the man parried, and launched a kick which Ken barely ducked away from. The assassin swung his arm, aiming for Ken’s ribs. . .

But he never made impact, because a wire flew through the air and wrapped around it, holding it back. Ken saw his chance. He leapt to his feet, slashing out with the claws.

The mission was over. Omi closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. From inside the live house, he could hear the opening chords of “Datenshi Blue.” Lucifer had taken the stage.

Atsuro, my friend, he thought. . .you’re safe. At last.

* * *

It was the next day. Omi was back in familiar surroundings, the basement of the flower shop, typing away at his computer.

The last stage of any mission was the filing of the official report. Usually, he did it with a “good riddance” feeling. . .but this time, his emotions were definitely bittersweet.

He regretted the fact that he and Ken were forced to leave Towa and Atsuro’s house without saying goodbye. . .they just went straight from the site of the mission to the apartment and collected their things. Omi wrote a short note. . .” It’s over. Thanks for everything.”

Any personal contact would have been violation of Kritiker policy. . .get in, do your business and get out. Omi thought he’d never hated Kritiker policy more.

I’ll E-mail him as soon as I’m done with this, he thought. I’ll tell him I want to keep in touch. . .somehow. Even if we just do it over the Internet.

As he filled in the details of the case, he wondered how they ever managed to complete the mission successfully. He knew they never had *all* the information about what had been going on. There had been some common thread in all the killings that had constantly eluded him.

If I had found it sooner, he thought, Lucifer wouldn’t have come so close to getting blown up. . .or shot.

He continued his typing, barely listening to the news broadcast coming over the radio. “. . . .investigation into handling of campaign funds. In other news, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders throughout the world have denounced the activities of the right-wing extremists from America called the Omega Guard, who have been conducting a vigorous evangelical campaign throughout Japan. Local police have accused them of setting off smoke bombs in a temple last week, but there has been no concrete proof. And, in Hakodate today, a teenage boy is about to come to trial for allegedly stalking his ex-girlfriend. . .”

The sound of the announcer’s voice completely masked the sound of the footsteps coming up behind Omi. . .so when Yohji said, “Hey there, pretty boy!” he nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Yohji-kun!” Omi said. “Warn me before you do that!”

“Sorry,” Yohji said. “Hey, are you going to be much longer? The girls upstairs are just about panting for you. You’ve been depriving them of their Omitchi fix.”

“I’ll be a few minutes,” Omi said. “Just finishing this report.”

Yohji looked over Omi’s shoulder, at the list of the murdered rock groups he was typing in. “Geez, the things some people will name their bands nowadays,” he said. “Screaming Yellow Jesus. . .Christ on a Crutch. . .Satan Dolls. . .”

Suddenly, alarm bells went off in Omi’s head. He snapped to sudden attention, gasping.

The common thread that had eluded him all along. . .this was it! All of the bands that had been killed had names that would be considered Satanic or blasphemous by Christians. . .

The kind of names that would incite the wrath of unstable right-wing terrorist groups. . .

Omi suddenly leapt from his seat. “Yohji-kun!” he shouted. “Go upstairs and get the others! We have to get down to Lucifer’s rehearsal studio *now*! Bring weapons!”

“WHAT?” Yohji said. “Omitchi. . .the mission is *over*.”

“Just DO IT!” Omi shouted, running into Weiss’s supply room, snatching at what he needed. . .

He ran for his motorcycle like a man possessed, silently praying that he was on time. He knew now exactly who had killed those bands, and why. . .and it had *nothing* to do with Wundar X, or Red Skies.

And Lucifer was still very much in danger.

* * *

“YEAH! We kicked some MAJOR butt last night!”

Santa raised his can of iced coffee over his head, as if making a toast to their success the previous night.

“It *was* pretty incredible,” Towa said, continuing to tune his bass. “I don’t think we’ve ever gotten that much applause.”

“Or been asked to do that many encores!” said Atsuro, who was plugging in his own instrument. “I didn’t think they were *ever* going to let us off the stage! “

“I just wish I could have been there,” Yuka sighed from her perch on Santa’s drum riser. “Figures I’d miss the best gig ever.”

“Nee-chan, you *know* that policewoman told you to keep away from the band until they got the guys,” said Atsuro. If she really *was* a policewoman, he thought.

“She never came back, did she?” Yuka said, looking thoughtful.

Atsuro shook his head. “They’ll probably contact us in a day or two for a wrap-up. Only way we knew it was over is we got back to Towa’s place and found a note from Omi.” He looked at the floor, trying to fight the wave of the blues that washed over him. He never got a chance to say a proper goodbye to his friend, and he wondered if he would ever see him again.

I can’t think about that now, he thought. I should be happy. . .we scored our biggest-ever success. We’re *back* on the Tokyo music scene.

“Now, what was that news you had for us, Yuka?” said Yuki, putting his guitar down.

“Oh, yes. Well, I got a couple of phone calls this morning. One was from the master of the place where you played last night. He wants you back next weekend. Another was from the manager of Club Platypus. . .he wants to know if you’re available for their End-Of-Summer Bash.”

“Whoa!” Atsuro said. “That’s *major.*” Club Platypus was one of the biggest live houses in the area. . .the kind of place you only got booked into once you were *well* established.

“Oh, but it gets better,” she said. “The *third* call I got was from the master of. . .get this. . .the SALT PEANUT. And they were BEGGING to take you back.”

The boys just looked at each other for a moment, savoring the irony. . .the very live house that had started the ban against them. . .

Then, Santa let out a loud guffaw. “Wait’ll I tell that jerk Tommy Hairball about *this*! Call me a no-talent? Eat THIS, you Motley Crue throwback!” He punched his fist in the air, as if he were making contact with various parts of the obnoxious singer’s anatomy.

“I told him that. . .”

“You’re not going to play *anywhere*,” said a voice in the doorway.

“Ehh?” Towa said, looking toward the source. Some other band of jealous jerks, he thought. . .but what met his eyes definitely wasn’t a rock band. It was a group of men, mid-20s to late 50s, all wearing black, all with large crosses around their necks.

And all heavily armed with knives, hatchets, lead pipes. . .

Yuki leapt to his feet. “What the hell is THIS?” he said. “Get out of here before we call the police!”

“Hell is precisely what this is,” said the leader, a man with out-of-control bushy steel-grey hair. . .and a crazed fire in his eyes. “Demon scum. . .spreading the word of the Prince of Darkness throughout Japan. . .just like the others!”

Atsuro quickly threw himself in front of his sister, protectively, while reaching for his cell phone. Oh, gods, he thought. . .I hope that emergency number for Omi’s strike force is still programmed in there. . .

“Get the hell OUT!” Santa said, rushing from behind his drums. . .only to be caught with a karate kick to the head. He sprawled to the floor, and looked up, to see a knife descending toward him. . .

* * *

“This way!” Omi shouted, leading the other three members of Weiss through the door of the studio. It figures nobody else is here today, he thought. There’d be no one to hear a disturbance, and get help. . .

He heard the screams and the banging immediately, and his heart leapt into his throat. He rushed toward Lucifer’s usual studio, Studio Five. . .of course, the door was locked. . .and no time to wait for Yohji to pick it. . .

“On the count of three,” he told Ken. “One, two. . .”

The two kicked at the door simultaneously, and it burst open. They rushed in, weapons at the ready. . .

The sight that met their eyes was chaos. Bodies flying everywhere. Blood splattered on furniture, walls. No, I won’t let myself be afraid for them, Omi thought. I have to take down these bastards. . .I have to complete my mission. . .

Meanwhile, Lucifer was managing to hold their own. Santa had managed to head-butt his attacker and get his knife away, and was now circling another tough, knives at the ready, like two gang members from West Side Story. Atsuro had bashed a couple of others with his guitar. . .but that took them out just temporarily. He stood with the instrument poised, ready to swing again. . .

Yuki was putting the physical agility he’d learned as part of his Noh training to good use, ducking and dodging another knife-wielding assailant. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up, he thought. . .

A foot swept into his calves, knocking him off his feet. He went down hard. . .and saw the knife start to come down at him. He took a deep breath, anticipating the worst. . .

Then, the knife clattered to the floor, and the assailant landed beside it. Aya coolly pulled his katana back.

“Thank you,” Yuki said, quietly.

“Don’t thank me,” Aya said. “I don’t do favors.”

Ken, meanwhile, saw another crazed terrorist, screaming, waving a knife over his head and running toward where Towa was trying to shield Yuka. He leapt at the killer, bugnuks at the ready. . .but the assailant heard him and spun around, swinging the weapon at him. Ken raised his own and caught the knife between his blades.

“Nice try,” he said.

The blue-haired, icy-eyed man tried to pull away. “You defend them? You’re only condemning yourself to the same hell they’re going to!”

Ken released the knife. . .only to sweep one bugnuk in a lightning-quick arc and deliver a fatal blow. The thug dropped to the floor, gurgling.

“I condemned myself to hell a long time ago,” Ken said in his coldest voice.

Meanwhile, Omi had one more in his sights. Just one wrong move on his part, he thought, and I have a clear shot. . .

The killer turned toward him, leveling a gun as his chest. “Don’t even *think* of moving,” he said. “You are *dead*.”

Omi stood stock-still, obediently, his eyes trained behind the man. . .

The killer was so intent on the boy in front of him that he didn’t even notice Ken sneaking up behind him until the swift kick landed square in his kidneys. The tough staggered forward, and Omi saw his opportunity. He fired his crossbow, and another target was eliminated. He and Ken exchanged looks, nodding. . .they didn’t need to do more.

Yohji was battling the one remaining killer, a short, almost square-shaped man wielding a *very* big knife. . .which he’d almost severed Yohji’s wires with more than once. He leapt, flinging the lariat. . .only to have him duck it yet again. . .This is like trying to fight Brad frigging Crawford, he thought.

“You think you can defeat me?” the man said. “I have something you don’t! I am clothed with the armor of righteousness!”

“Oh, really?” Yohji said, circling him again, looking for his break. . .

“Yes! I am invincible, because I have the Lord on my side! I am. . .”

Now, Yohji thought, when he’s busy bragging. . . He threw the wires, and managed to wrap them around the man’s throat.

“Apparently,” he said, as he pulled on the steel threads, “the armor of righteousness isn’t big enough to fully cover a swollen ego.”

There’s still one missing, Omi thought as he looked around the room. The leader. . .where’s the leader. . .

And that was when he noticed the open grating in the wall.

He whirled around to face the members of Lucifer. They were huddled together like frightened children. And he realized, with horror, that one of them was missing.

“Atsuro!” he said. “What happened to Atsuro-kun?”

The others shook their heads. “He was just. . .gone. . .” Yuki said.

Omi instantly turned and ran for the hole in the wall. I know what happened, he thought. I know the leader grabbed him in the middle of the chaos and took off. . .don’t worry, Atsuro-kun, I’ll find you. . .

“Omi!” Ken shouted, lunging after him.

Omi turned back. “Ken-kun. . .you and the other two stay here, just in case there’s other Omega Guard hanging around. I’m going after Atsuro-kun.”

“It’s too dangerous to go by yourself!” Ken shouted.

Aya put a hand on his shoulder. “Let him.”

Ken wheeled around. “Aya! You don’t know what you’re saying!”

“I *do* know. Omi is the only one of us who’s small and quick enough to move through a ventilation system undetected. Do you want to blow the mission at this stage?”

Ken was at a loss for words. He knew Aya was right. All he could do was watch his lover start to climb through the hole. . .

He looked back over his shoulder. “Towa-kun. . .don’t worry. I will *not* let him die.” And then, he disappeared.

* * *

Atsuro raised his head, feeling groggy. He remembered those guys bursting in. . .somebody shouting something to him about being a “servant of darkness”. . .a cloth being pressed over his mouth and nose, and then. . .nothing.

Where was he? He was being dragged somewhere, he knew that. . .the bumping and pain in his lower body were all too obvious. Wherever it was, it was clammy, and damp. . .

He tried to twist out of the iron grasp of the person who was holding him about the torso, like a child dragging a doll. The movement only made his captor drag him upwards. He found himself face-to-face with the gray-haired, crazed-looking man.

“So, you managed to wake up,” he said. “Looks like I didn’t give you enough of the stuff.” The man fumbled in his pocket with one hand, keeping the other one tightly wrapped around Atsuro.

“Who the hell are you?” Atsuro said, continuing to struggle. . .but to no avail. His arms were being held tightly against his body. This guy was a pro.

“Omega Guard. We get rid of Satanic trash like you. We’ve already rid most of Japan of the Satanic influences on its youth.”

“Satanic?” said Atsuro, trying once again to move. “What are you talking about? We know nothing about Satan. None of us are even *Christian.* We’re just a *band*.”

“So you say!” the man said, finding what he was looking for and drawing a cloth out of his pocket. “We’re gonna take care of your *band*. You’re our hostage. We’ll use you to lure your buddies to us, and we’re gonna tell them no cops or goon squads this time. And then. . .*all* of you are going to die.”

Atsuro felt the cloth on his nose and mouth again, smelled a burning, chemical odor. . .and returned to the blackness.

* * *

Omi was in the basement of the rehearsal studio. He glanced around him for any sign of where the thug could have gone. The one door leading to the outdoors was locked from the outside. . .and so was the one leading upstairs.

There’s no second floor in this building, he thought. There was no sign of them in any of the other rehearsal halls. . .dammit, they must have gone out a window somewhere. I didn’t see any windows left open, but that doesn’t mean. . .

A loud squeaking noise distracted him. He whirled around, crossbow at the ready. . .and saw a mouse, ducking into a crack in the floor. More like a chunk taken out of the floor.

Omi went over to the chunk, put his finger in it, and lifted. Sure enough, a piece of the floor came up, revealing a dirt-lined tunnel underneath. . .which bore fresh footprints, and the marks of something that had been dragged.

I’ve found you, he thought, and ducked into the opening.

* * *

“This is a HELL of a time for you to show up!” Santa shouted at Sakuya. “You’re the only one of us who really knows how to FIGHT! You could have. . .”

“Do you really think I could have kept Atsuro from being captured singlehandedly?” Sakuya said in his usual cool tone of voice. He glanced around at the other band members and the three Weiss, who were now sitting around the lobby of the rehearsal studio. His eyes resting on Aya, he said, “You had professionals here. They did what they could.”

“They DID WHAT THEY COULD?” Santa shouted, lunging at Sakuya. “Atsuro could be DEAD, and all you can say is THEY DID WHAT THEY COULD?”

“Santa!” Yuki pulled him away from the singer. “Sakuya’s right. He *couldn’t* have made a difference. He would have been in as much danger as the rest of us.”

Santa just threw up his hands, turned and walked to the far corner of the room, where he threw himself into a chair.

Meanwhile, Ken was a nervous wreck. He sat on one of the plastic chairs, his legs jiggling, his fingers knotting and unknotting.

I should have gone with Omi, he thought. I should have just jumped in that grate after him and told him I don’t care what you say, I’m not letting you go after that guy by yourself. Now all I can do is sit, and worry. . .

He looked beside him at Towa, who was just sitting quietly with his arms crossed over his body, the usual serene look on his face.

“How the hell can you be so calm,” he said, “when the person you love is gods-only-know where, and you have no idea what’s happening to him?”

Towa just turned his head toward him, and said, calmly, “It’s out of our hands now, isn’t it? Constant worrying isn’t going to do them. . .or us. . .any good.”

Ken wanted to say something in return, but he was at a loss. He has so much faith in Atsuro, and in Omi, he thought. He’s utterly convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they’re both going to return alive. I just wish I could feel the same way.

* * *

Omi made his way through the sewer system. He could still see the tracks in the muck in the dim, dim light. He was *very* used to being down here. . .countless missions had required chasing criminals to the very bowels of the city.

But this time, the tunnels had never seemed so big, or so imposing.

He kept his ears peeled for any possible sound, but was rewarded only with silence. Atsuro, he thought. . .I *will* find you in time. I will *not* lose you like I did Ouka. I’ll take this guys bullets myself if I have to, but I *will* keep you safe.

There was something up ahead of him. . .was that the tiniest flicker of light, like someone striking a match? And then a sound, a very slight scraping. . .

Holding his finger on the trigger of his weapon, he moved forward, soundlessly, a shadow gliding through the air. . .yes, there *was* a sound in front of him. . .something being dragged. . .

Now he could make out a shape in front of him. Definitely a tall man, dragging a boy. He raised his crossbow. . .

And then. . .his foot hit a hole in the floor. It was a small one, which caused only a tiny stumble. . .but it was enough noise to betray his presence. The figure in front of him reacted like lighting, whirling around, whipping out a gun. . .and holding it to Atsuro’s head.

“You,” the man growled. “You’re one of THEM. You protected these servants of darkness. . .”

“Drop him!” Omi shouted.

The man shifted the boy in front of his own body. “Move and he dies!” he barked.

Omi stood rooted to the spot. Oh, gods, he thought. . .I can’t do anything unless he turns around. And he’s not going to do that. . .he’ll just back up with Atsuro in front of him, I know he will.

His heart sank with despair, thinking he had failed his friend, after all his promises to protect him.

And then. . .there was a movement behind Atsuro’s captor. . .someone leaping out of the shadows. A figure all in white, lashing out with a weapon. . .a strange kind of whip with a blade at the end. It wrapped around the man’s neck and pulled, making him drop Atsuro with a strangled cry. Omi immediately fired. . .and the target was eliminated.

The man in white jerked his weapon back and fled into the darkness from where he had come. “Hey!” Omi shouted. “Who are you? Why did you help us? Hey! Come back!”

But there was no reply. . .just the sound of retreating footsteps, and soon, even they faded out of existence.

Omi knelt by his friend, quickly checking for injuries. He was unconscious, and had been bumped around, but. . .it looked like nothing was serious. Omi heaved a deep sigh of relief.

Atsuro felt himself struggling toward consciousness again. . .and it was a lot harder than the last time, as if he were forcing his way upward through rapidly hardening liquid cement. Someone was gripping his wrist. He tried to jerk his hand away. . .

A familiar voice said, “Atsuro-kun. . .it’s me. It’s over now.”

Slowly, slowly, the boy opened his eyes. He could barely make out the face in front of him.

“Omi?” he said, hoarsely.

Omi nodded, choking back emotion, feeling flooded with relief and happiness. “Yes. Somebody came out of nowhere and saved us. How are you feeling?”

“Well. . .my head feels kinda funny, but other than that. . .okay, I guess.”

“Do you think you can walk?”

“Yeah, I can try.”

Omi put his friend’s arm around his shoulders and hauled him to his feet. Atsuro took a couple of unsteady steps, then was able to walk almost normally, although he leaned heavily on Omi.

“Where are we?” he said.

“Down in the sewer system,” Omi said. “I’m going to see if I can contact the others. . .” He activated his headset. “Abyssinian. . .it’s Bombay. Can you read me?”

There was a crackle and a burst of static, but Aya’s voice replied, “Yes. . .come in, Bombay.”

“Mission accomplished. I have Atsuro and I’m bringing him back now. We’re in the sewer system. . .” He squinted at the walls around him, looking for any markings, any identifying characteristics. “I think we’re not too far from the outlet behind that department store. . .Takashimaya.”

“We’re on our way there,” Aya replied. “Abyssinian out.”

Omi continued to guide Atsuro along the floor. “They’re coming to help us,” he said.

“They?” said Atsuro. “Your friends?”

“Yes,” Omi said. “Your bandmates will probably end up going with them.”

Atsuro gave a hoarse chuckle. “Wonder if Sakuya ever showed up. Bet Santa gave him a piece of his mind. . .and then started insisting he be fired.”

Omi gave his friend’s shoulders a little squeeze. “If you fire him, could I take over? I’d love to sing with a band.”

“Can you sing?” Atsuro said, leaning on Omi a bit heavier. The wooziness from the drug was coming and going, big-time.

“Not that well,” Omi said. “But. . .that hasn’t stopped a lot of other people, has it?”

Both boys laughed. They *could* laugh now.

“So. . .where ae we going now?” said Atsuro.

“We’re going to find the sewer outlet behind Takashimaya, and I’m going to lift you out.” He saw the look of alarm on his friend’s face. “Don’t worry. . .my friends and your friends will be on the other end to lift you out.”

Atsuro sagged against Omi. He was going to see everyone again. He was going to go home with Towa tonight, and they could sleep easily, knowing that there was definitely nobody out there who was after them now. It was over, really over, at long last.

* * *

Of all the things that happened during that mission, the one that stuck in Omi’s mind the most was the moment when he boosted Atsuro up to the manhole, and Towa reached down to draw his lover back up into the light. The band members and his sister all crowded around him, shouting their happiness that he was okay. . .but Towa just cradled him in his arms, silently, tears streaming down his face.

Omi thought he was going to cry himself when Ken helped him climb out of the hole, then gave him a huge hug. “I’m so proud of you,” he whispered.

“It wasn’t me, Ken-kun,” he said. “Somebody saved us. . .some guy in white came out with a weapon, and. . .”

Omi felt a hand grip his shoulder. He turned to see Aya, violet eyes burning more intensely than usual. “Omi. . .what did you say?”

“A man all in white came out of nowhere and rescued us. He choked the target with this funny whip that had a blade at the end. . .”

Aya’s heart thundered. Now, he knew for sure. There was only one person on the planet who wore all white and used a weapon like that.

He broke away from them and ran pell-mell down the street, following the path of the sewer outlets. . .he *had* to have come up somewhere, somewhere. . .he was *alive*, alive, that was really him all those times, that was no mirage. . .

But there was no sign, anywhere. Not the tiniest clue. No hints that any sewer covers had been forced off and replaced.

“YUSHI!” he cried into the twilight. But there was no answer.

* * *

Towa unlocked the door of his apartment, and he and Atsuro walked in. It still looks empty without Ken and Omi in it, Atsuro thought.

He felt his lover put an arm around him and squeeze him tightly. “Are you *sure* you’re okay, love?”

“Yes. . .I’m fine. The doctor checked and rechecked and re-rechecked me. There’s no damage. The drugs have worn off. He said to take Monday off from school, but. . .I can go back Tuesday.” He sighed to himself. After tonight. . .he’d be going back to his parents’ house as well. His bed always felt cold and empty the first night alone after being with Towa. . .now, it would feel ten times more so.

“Sit down, then,” Towa said. “I’ll get you something to drink. . .”

“Towa. . .really. You don’t *have* to wait on me hand and foot.”

Towa hugged him. “I know, but. . .” He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “I came so close to losing you that. . .”

“But it’s all right,” Atsuro said, leaning his head against Towa’s. “I was rescued.”

“Did you see any of it?”

“No,” Atsuro said, winding a long, blond strand around his finger. “I was out the whole time. . .except when I woke up once. Very briefly. Just long enough for that guy to figure out I was awake, and drug me again. . .” He shuddered at the memory.

“Don’t think about it any more,” Towa whispered. “It’s over.”

“It’s so hard to believe. It feels like *years* since we were first attacked.”

They just stood there for a long moment in silence, arms wrapped around each other, heads close together, feeling each other’s warmth. . .

Then, Towa said, “Well, why don’t we go. . .lie down for a few minutes?”

Atsuro just smiled at him, brushing his lover’s hair out of his eyes. Hand in hand, they headed for the bedroom.

Atsuro flopped down on the bed, sighing. “Do you realize. . .this is the first time we’ve been alone. . .*really* alone. . .since it happened? You know. . .the first incident?”

Towa gracefully settled next to him, lying on his side with his head leaning on his hand. “Well, we were alone that night, but. . .”

“Doesn’t count,” said Atsuro, rolling over so he could throw an arm around his lover. “There’s no way we felt like doing anything that night. . .except being scared. . .”

“It feels good, doesn’t it?” said Towa, tenderly stroking Atsuro’s flame-colored hair. “Knowing that we’re *finally* safe. . .”

“It feels great.” Atsuro snuggled closer to Towa. “We haven’t made love in. . .how long? It seems like forever.”

“I have a feeling,” Towa whispered, “that you want to do something about that.”

Atsuro didn’t say anything. . .but a pink flush started to spread over his cheeks. It was all the answer that Towa needed. He leaned over, pressing his lips against the younger boy’s, his arms coming up around him. Atsuro made a small noise of pleasure in his throat, his arms tightening around Towa as their lips parted, their tongues eagerly seeking each other.

Gods, Atsuro thought. . .when I was being dragged through that tunnel. . .those few moments I was awake . . .I thought I’d never do this again. . .I’d die without ever feeling Towa hold and kiss me again. . .He kissed Towa with renewed fervor, pressing his lips against his lover’s insistently, hands wandering down his body to find the smooth curve of his bottom.

As he felt Atsuro grasp and stroke his buttocks, Towa let out a gasp, his body arching backward into the touch. A slow heat started to steal through his veins as the fingers squeezed, released, gently kneaded and massaged. . .

“Ooohh,” Towa gasped between kisses. “That’s nice. . .” He let a hand slip between their bodies and reached for the buttons on Atsuro’s shirt, resisting the temptation to just yank at them. No. . .he had to take it slow and easy, make it as good for both of them as possible. . .

The fabric parted, and his hand slipped beneath, his palm moving over the soft, smooth skin. . .but with taut muscles beneath. He felt so soft and sensual, but at the same time, very much male. . .

Towa’s fingers encountered the bud of a nipple as his lips and tongue continued to stroke Atsuro’s. Softly, he caressed it, feeling the boy shudder with desire, which sent answering ripples of heat through Towa’s own body.

When their lips parted, Towa swept his tongue down Atsuro’s neck, slowly. . .moved down to nibble at his exposed collarbone. . .then began laying a line of soft kisses up his pulse line. He unfastened his shirt the rest of the way, and Atsuro eagerly shrugged it off, his trembling fingers reaching for Towa’s hands, bringing them back to his nipples.

“You like when I do that, don’t you?” Towa whispered, moving up to kiss the redhead’s ear.

“Y-yes,” Atsuro gasped through a haze of heat, feeling like he was going to drown in the luscious sensations that flooded him. . .and he wouldn’t mind a bit. As Towa began to caress both nipples, he let out a deep, throaty moan, his entire body writhing, arching up toward Towa, mutely begging him for more, more, oh, he could never get enough. . .

“Towa,” he gasped, “please. . .please, let’s get rid of these clothes. . .I need to feel you against me so badly. . .”

“Yes, darling. . .” They pulled apart from each other, their fingers reaching up to unfasten anything that could possibly be unfastened. . .zippers, buttons, belts. . .The unwanted fabric was tossed to the floor in a heap, and Towa lay full-length atop Atsuro, their arms coming around each other again, their lips clashing, tongues caressing.

Slowly, they began to move, rubbing skin on skin, heated thighs pressing together, nipples sliding on each other, erections brushing, contacting each other just hard enough to send maddening waves of sweet agony through them both.

“Oooohhh, gods,” Atsuro moaned. “So good. . .so, so good. . .”

“I can’t get enough of how you feel,” Towa whispered. He reached down and gently grasped his lover’s erection in his hand, beginning to stroke it, top to bottom. . .

“Your mouth,” Atsuro gasped. “Use your mouth. . .please. . .”

Towa was not going to turn down a request like that. He began to kiss down Atsuro’s neck again, stopping every few inches to move his tongue around in maddening swirls. Atsuro whimpered in pleasure, which almost became a shriek when Towa moved down to his right nipple and began to lick it rapidly.

Towa drew the bud into his lips and sucked, tugging at it firmly, as his fingers danced over the head of Atsuro’s manhood. He was having fantasies about how this would end, with his own shaft deep within that sweet body. . .he could feel it already, the tight passage gripping him. . .

“Lower,” Atsuro gasped, tangling his fingers in Towa’s hair. “Please, please. . .I need it. . .”

Towa began to lick over Atsuro’s stomach. . .angling his head so his long, golden hair slid slowly over the boy’s skin, feeling like a silken scarf. This only made the flames in Atsuro’s blood burn all the hotter. He didn’t know how much pleasure he was going to be able to take before he out-and-out exploded.

When he finally reached his goal, Towa bent over it and kissed the head a few times, reverently. He opened his mouth just enough to slide it in. . .bit by bit, little by little. ..He could feel the shape of it, the way it seemed to pulse as Atsuro’s desire swept over him again and again.

He caressed the shaft with his tongue, licking up, then down, then rapidly around and around the tip. . .Meanwhile, his fingers cupped and stroked the sac beneath, with utmost gentleness.

“Ooohhh!” Atsuro cried, panting. “Yes. . .like that. . .ooohhh. . .”

Towa slipped it into his mouth again, sucking deeply, pulling it almost all the way out. . .then giving it a few good, hard sucks . .then back in again, as deep as Towa could possibly take it. . .

“Towa. . .ooohhh. . .I want it. . .I want it, but. . .”

His lover stopped what he was doing, and moved up, kissing his flushed, sweaty face softly. “What is it, Atsuro? What’s wrong?”

“N-nothing, but. . .I want to come, but. . .I want you to come with me. I want you to be inside me.”

Towa laughed softly, and kissed Atsuro again. “You read my mind, sweetheart. I was thinking the same thing.” He pulled away just long enough to go into the nighttable. “Here. . .do you want to put the rubber on me?”

“I’d love it.” Atsuro opened the foil package, and took Towa’s erection in his hand. . .then got a wicked idea.

He shifted his body so he could get Towa’s manhood in his mouth, sliding it in, sucking gently, yet firmly. He slid it out. . .flicked his tongue right on the sensitive area right under the head. . .then took it back in. .

Towa leaned back, letting out a deep, long moan. “Ooohh. . .good. . .Atsuro. . .Atsuro. . .ohh, if you keep that up, I’ll never get inside you. . .”

Atsuro moved back. “I don’t want *that* to happen,” he said. He picked up the rubber, rolling it carefully on Towa’s erection. . .then picked up the tube of lubricant lying on the bed beside them.

“Just lube it well on top of the condom,” Towa said. “Then give the tube to me.”

Atsuro did what he was told, then got on his hands and knees, arching his body up to Towa, knowing full well what was coming next. Sure enough, he heard the squish of the tube. . .and then felt a very gentle probing, a finger slowly caressing his opening, coaxing it to let him in. . . There was a small amount of pain as it pushed inside him, by degrees.

“Ohh, yes,” Atsuro moaned as the pain gave away to a warm pleasure that spread over every inch of his body. “Please, Towa. . .I want you inside me so badly. . .”

“Sssshhh, be patient,” Towa whispered. “It’ll be worth it. . .”

The finger slid out.. .then was replaced by a second. As they moved in and out, in and out, Atsuro began to move his hips in time to the thrusts, making small purring noises. He absolutely loved the sensation of being filled.

“Almost ready, love,” said Towa, and Atsuro felt a third finger enter him. Again, a small amount of pain. . .and then waves of unspeakably luscious pleasure. Now Atsuro was thrusting back against him hard, mutely begging him to complete the act.

When the fingers left him, Atsuro flipped over onto his back, holding his arms — and legs — open. And then, Towa was on top of him. . .and their lips were coming together. . .and there was a probing, probing at the opening of his passage, unyielding at first, then blooming bit by bit. . .The pain came, and Atsuro sucked in his breath, but hung on.

And then. . .the pleasure. Waves of hot honeyed sensation, which just grew stronger and stronger as Towa started to move. . .slowly. . .and then faster and faster, the heat just rising and rising. Atsuro flung his arms around Towa widely, tangling his fingers in the silken gold of his hair, bucking his hips, moaning from the very depths of his soul.

Towa drove into his beloved’s body again and again. . .so tight, so hot. . .he felt so welcomed. . .every thrust sent a shower of sparks shooting through his nerve endings, making his heart pound even harder, his breath come even faster. . .

“Atsuro,” he moaned. “You’re so delicious. . .ohhh, yes . .ohh, I don’t know how. . .much. . .longer. . .”

“Yes. . .almost there. . .ohh, yes. . .” Atsuro raised his hips again and again and again, wanting to take Towa deeper still, feeling like his lover was driving right into the core of his being. . .just a little more, a little more, he was so close he could taste it. . .

And then, Atsuro let out a loud cry, and another, and the heat exploded within him, searing through every pore, every follicle. He writhed as one delicious spasm after another shook him. . .then went limp, completely spent.

Towa heard and felt his lover’s climax, and that did it. . .suddenly, he was wracked with pulses of luscious feeling, shooting through him over and over. . .just when he thought it was done, here came another wave, and he let out another cry, and then felt his seed pour from him.

He collapsed atop Atsuro, and they clung to each other, kissing, stroking each other’s faces, whispering to each other.

“That was *so* worth the wait,” said Atsuro.

Towa laughed, hugging him. “Yes. . .it was. I love you so much. . .”

“I love you, too. You’ll never know how much I love you.”

Towa stroked his hair and kissed him softly again. “Oh. . .I think I can imagine.”

Atsuro snuggled against Towa with his head on his chest, and they wrapped their arms around each other. “I really hope I hear from Omi again.”

“I’m sure you will.”

“I want to thank him somehow, for saving me. . .”

“We’ll think about that in the morning, love,” Towa murmured sleepily. “Good night.”

As Atsuro drifted off to sleep, he remembered something Omi had said to him as they were making their way through the sewer, after he was saved. . .and he knew exactly what his friend’s reward would be.

* * *

Omi sat at his computer, staring glumly at the screen. Another mission report to type up. But this time. . .it was going very slowly.

He was just waiting for Manx to contact him for a debriefing. And he knew what was coming. “You are to have *no* contact with *any* of those boys anymore, Omi.”

Why does the thought of that hurt even worse than it did before? Omi thought. Maybe because saving Atsuro’s life made me feel. . .even more attached to him. . .

He heard footsteps on the stairs behind him. “Angel?” Ken said. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Omi said, turning away from the screen. “Just making no progress with this.”

Ken walked over to him and pulled him into his arms, gently rubbing his back. “I know. Look, why don’t we go out later? Have dinner, maybe go to the movies. . .I’ll let you pick both.”

“Maybe,” Omi sighed.

“I know you’re upset about this whole thing,” Ken whispered, soothingly. “I know you miss them. I miss them, too.”

Omi just held onto his lover, swallowing back tears. I have to get over this, he thought. I have to just put Towa and Atsuro out of my mind, and go back to the business of doing missions. . .

There was the sound of another footfall on the stairs. Different than the usual. . .the distinct sound of spiked heels clicking against the metal. . .

The lovers eased apart. Omi looked up into the face of his commanding officer, struggling to hide his emotions.

“Well-done, Omi,” Manx said. “Ken, I need to talk to him alone for a few moments.”

Ken nodded, squeezed Omi’s hand one last time, then headed up the stairs.

Once he was gone, Manx gestured toward the “mission area,” where the sofa and chairs were. Omi mutely followed her, sinking into a seat.

“Aya gave us the information about the last attack on Lucifer,” Manx said. “We found out that the Omega Guard had been planning an international terror campaign. Japan was only their first stop. They’d been planning to make their way across Europe after that, and finally, the United States.”

“Any connection to Estet?” Omi said, dully.

Manx shook her head. “Just a rogue group of loose cannons. They had nothing at all to do with the bombing at the live house. We ran a background check on the owner of the place, and found out that he was formerly associated with Estet, but he’d left the group, suddenly. The attack was directed at him. We definitely have a relationship between Estet and Red Skies here.”

Omi just nodded. “And. . .the Wundar X connection?”

“Simply tied in to the musician’s madness. He fancied himself a devil, so. . .when he recruited people to play on his recording, he deliberately picked bands with satanic names. He probably thought they could bring extra evil vibes to the project.”

“So. . .the case is closed, as soon as I file my report?”

“Not quite yet. I need to ask you a couple of questions about that boy you saved.”

Oh, gods, Omi thought. Here it comes.

“Did he see the actual mission at all?”

Omi shook his head. “He was unconscious at the time I eliminated the target.”

“Did he ask any questions that might have led you to believe he had seen through your cover story?”

“No,” Omi replied, truthfully.

“Good,” Manx said, “because we want you to keep an eye on him for awhile longer.”

Omi swallowed hard. . .this was the last thing in the world he expected to hear! “You. . .want me to *extend* the mission?”

“We’re not *entirely* sure there’s not more Omega Guard members still operating in Japan. Until we are, we want you to keep close tabs on that boy, since for some reason, he seemed to be their main target. You don’t have to move in with him again, but. . .we would like you to “hang out” with him, as if you were a friend, when you’re not working here. . .and keep in touch with him by E-mail and cell phone. Make sure he reports *anything* the *least* bit suspicious to you, and be on the lookout for anyone or anything the slightest bit usual.”

Omi couldn’t believe his ears. He was being given a *mission*. . .to *hang out with Atsuro*! Instead of hearing the thing he dreaded the most. . .he was hearing the *exact opposite*!

“Oh, sure,” he said, trying to sound casual. “Not a problem.”

“Good,” she said, standing up. “We’ll keep working on the Omega Guard investigation on our end, too. Now. . .I have to go. And I want to let you know, Omi. . .Kritiker is especially pleased with you. . .with *all* of you. . .for the job you did on this one.”

Omi bowed slightly. “Thank you.”

He watched Manx go, quietly. . .

Then, he flew up the steps into the main part of the flower shop, his feet barely touching the rungs. He saw Ken near the cash register, making out a delivery slip. . .and he threw himself at him with a massive glomp, nearly knocking him off his feet. The girls watching outside gasped.

“Oi, Omi!” Ken cried, struggling to regain his balance. “What’s this?”

“Come back into the greenhouse,” Omi whispered. “I have to tell you something. I just got the best mission ever.”

* * *

It was a few weeks later, at the Salt Peanut.

The place was packed to the gills with young people — mostly girls. A sense of excited anticipation filled the air. . .the hottest band on the Tokyo club circuit was playing tonight!

“I hear they’re going to be doing an outdoor live over the weekend,” a girl in a pink polka-dotted crop top and blue denim miniskirt said to her friends. “They said when they left for their tour they were going to finish with a street live in Tokyo. . .but then, they started getting *real* gigs. But they finally have time to do it now.”

“Over the weekend?” said another girl, whose sweater was almost the same flaming red as her hair. . .and her lipstick. . .and her nail polish. “They said we were supposed to get a *hurricane* this weekend!”

“Hurricane, schmurricane,” said a third girl, who had close-cropped navy-blue hair and an all-black wardrobe. “It’s just a rumor. Besides. . .I’d go *see* them in a hurricane!”

Two young men sat front and center, looking a bit out of place. “Doesn’t this band attact any women who are old enough to vote?” Yohji sighed.

“Doesn’t look like it, does it?” Ken said, looking at his watch. “Where the hell is Omi? He said he was going back to see Atsuro, but. . .that was a half-hour ago, and. . .”

The house lights went down, and the girls in the audience squealed. . .and squealed louder as Lucifer walked onto the stage. Towa and Yuki were resplendent in “glam” outfits. . .sequined shirts, feathered jackets. Atsuro’s outfit was a bit different, though. . .he wore short black shorts, a very carefully torn black tank top, and black platform boots. Santa just had on a Nippon Ham Fighters baseball jersey and jeans.

Sakuya. . .was missing.

Atsuro went to the main microphone. “Good evening!” he said. The girls squealed again. “We’re Lucifer. . .and we’re going to kick off the evening with a special treat. Towa and I wrote a song together, and we’ve got a special guest singer who’s going to perform it. . .”

Where the *hell* is Omi? Ken thought. Atsuro’s on *stage* now, so Omi can’t be back there with him anymore. If I can fight my way through this crowd, I’m going to. . .

“So everyone give it up for Tokyo’s favorite flower boy. . .OMI!”

“WHAAAA?” Ken shouted out loud. Yohji just stood there with his jaw dropping.

Sure enough, Omi ran onto the stage, smiling, waving, wearing an all-silver outfit. . .short shorts like Atsuro’s, a little T-shirt, and gloves. He was also wearing very noticeable eyeliner. The girls instantly recognized him from the flower shop, and the squealing reached critical mass.

“Hello, everyone!” Omi shouted, taking the mike into his hand. “This is a song Towa and Atsuro wrote, and it’s called ‘Brain Damage’!” He exchanged a look with Atsuro, and his friend began playing a couple of scratchy guitar chords. . .then the band went into a rocking, slightly sinister groove. Omi instantly began jumping around, rushing from one side of the stage to the other as he sang. . .

“Susanda kimi no kimochi
okasarete yuku
shouten wa sadamarazu
kami mo midarete
haikyouto no jiyuu wa fukurokouji de
Tarot de uranatta ashita wa...”

(“I see your raging passion
Starting to calm
Without any sense of focus
Hair askew and wild
The freedom of disbelief leads to a dead end
What did the tarot cards predict for tomorrow?”)

Oh, gods, Ken thought. . .that’s why he kept sneaking out of the flower shop early! He was going to the studio to practice this with them! And he wanted it to be a surprise. . .

He turned his attention back to the stage. Omi had reached the chorus now, and was stretching his hand out toward the audience with an elaborate gesture with each line.

“Brain Down, Brain Storm
Brain Wash, Brain...

Yurikago ni tsutsumarete
nemuri ni tsuita
kyoudan ni unasareta
jihibukai yume
negaikoto no subete wa yami ni todomari
dare mo kimi no owari ni kitsukanai”

(“Then you fell asleep
Tucked into a cradle
Dreamt an assassin came for you
A peaceful, lulling dream
Darkness sees all desires
But no one senses their death.”)

“Brain Down, Brain Drain
Brain Wave, Brain Pain, Brain...”

During Atsuro’s guitar solo, Omi rushed over to his friend and leaned on his shoulder as he played. The girls in the audience burst into a renewed torrent of shrieks.

“Haikyouto no jiyuu wa fukurokouji de
Tarot de uranatta ashita wa...”

(“The freedom of disbelief leads to a dead end
What did the tarot cards predict for tomorrow?”)

“Brain Down, Brain Storm
Brain Wash, Brain...”

As the song ended, Omi stood with his arms upraised, a huge smile on his face. The girls screamed at the top of their lungs, and screamed again as he blew a kiss and ran off, passing the mike to Sakuya in the wings.

“Hey,” Sakuya said. “You gave me a tough act to follow.”

Whoa, Omi thought. . .from what Atsuro said, he *never* compliments another perfomer! “Thanks,” he said.

He continued to rush into the backstage area, giggling to himself. This wasn’t something he wanted to do all the time, but it was massive fun. The girls in the audience certainly didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t sing that well!

And then, he almost ran face-first into Ken.

“Ken-kun?” he said.

Ken scrutinized his makeup. . .his outfit. . . “What did those two *do* to you?”

Omi’s face fell. “You don’t like it?”

“Oh, Angel. . .I love it, it’s just. . .I’m not used to seeing you be so sexy in public!” He hugged him. “What on earth. . .”

“I had told Atsuro-kun I wanted to sing on stage, so. . .he gave me my chance! Was I good?”

“Honey. . .you were *great*.” The two kissed, tenderly. . .then Ken said, “Um, are you going to change before we go out with them after the show?”

“Of course. . .you really *don’t* like it, do you?”

“I do, I do. . .I just want to save that outfit for. . .” He pulled his lover closer. “When we’re *alone.*”

Their lips met again, as the loud music and the squeals of the crowd drifted backstage.

* * *

Outside the live house, a lone figure stood, looking up at the moon and stars, the wind ruffling his red hair and blowing his trenchcoat.

I’ve looked for him over and over, he thought. Not a trace. . .no clues at all. . .it’s as if he vanished from the face of the earth. But. . .I know for *sure* he’s alive now.

Aya could hear the music inside. It didn’t move him. Nothing would move him again, until he got his lover back in his arms.

I won’t give up, he thought. I’ll keep looking for Yuushi until we’re reunited. And we *will* be. Someday. . .

And he turned, and walked off into the night.

AUTHOR’S NOTES: This was my first attempt at a crossover. I’ve been at this for awhile, but I had never gotten up the courage to try one. . .until now. After all, I’d seen far too many well-intentioned crossovers that went awry.

I chose the two series involved very, very carefully. I knew I needed two shows that took place in the same time period (Evangelion and Sailor Moon just don’t cross over for that reason), were of a similar level of realism (you wouldn’t want to cross over Slayers and Marmalade Boy) and had characters that could belivably interact.

Also, they had to both be series that I felt strongly about and was very familiar with. It’s a lot easier to get experimental with old friends than it is with total strangers. ~_^

Weiss Kreuz and Kaikan Phrase fit all the above criteria. Plus, I loved the idea of Omi and Atsuro, two of my favorite characters of all time, becoming best friends.

And so, I set out to write this story. . .and continued writing throughout the entire summer of 2001. It’s the longest-gestating work I’ve ever done, as well as my longest single-part story.

I’m definitely willing to try this again. I’ve got a few other crossover ideas buzzing in my head already. Not telling what they are. . .yet. . . ~_^

There’s a lot of people I owe a huge thank-you to for this story. First of all, Cheyne and Sonya-chan. . .I feel I should give them co-author status, because much of the material in this story was developed in online roleplaying with them (I played out the scenario of Weiss guarding Lucifer with both). Second, my editor and dear friend, Steve Savage, who encouraged me throughout the long, long process of writing this story. Thanks *so* much, everybody, I couldn’t have done it without any of you. ^_^

Thanks also go out to Kou Aidiou, who graciously loaned me her Weiss Das Ewigie Daisen live tape, allowing me to see Yuuki Hiro’s live performance of “Brain Damage” firsthand (and was my charming hostess for Otakon, for which I am eternally grateful). BTW, Omi’s *performance* of the song came from that tape, but his outfit came from the cover of a doujinshi called “Chocolat.” The outfit just reminded me of Atsuro’s Notorious Slut-Boy Outfits.

The translation and romanization of “Brain Damage” was by Jey Karma, who runs the greatest Weiss Kreuz Web site ever, Aya no Weiss Kreuz Corner. Check it out at

Also, many thanks to the members of the Weiss and Kaikan MLs, who have given me so much support on the previous stories I’ve done in both fandoms.

Kaikan Phrase fansubs are available from Hitokiri’s Fansub Haven, Weiss Kreuz is coming out commercially this fall from Media Blasters.

All characters in lemon scenes are of the age of consent.

Weiss Kreuz belongs to Koyasu Takehito and Project Weiss. Kaikan Phrase is owned by Mayu Shinjo and Shogakukan. These characters ain’t mine, I’m just borrowing them for a little while.