Yoji lit a match, bringing it close to his face. The air was chilly and damp; moisture sneaked deep into his skin and clung in droplets on his hair. The little warmth was a great comfort. The cigarette would be even better. He lit the little cylinder and dropped the match into a nearby puddle.
Two weeks now without a mission. Manx had not stopped by the flower shop. And the clouds had been drizzling for over a week. Yoji watched the dark clouds roll overhead. The red light district was good for this sort of weather, doing dirty things under a dark sky.
He looked at the crumpled paper he held in his hand. It was an old advertisement with parts of the big bold words cut off. All that remained: ..a certain type? Call for an appointment. set you up. girl of your dreams! "Dreams" was typed in capital letters.
Yoji had saved the ad for a day like this, when the clubs didn't seem right, and when he could no longer deal with his secret complacently.
He called two days ago, when the rain was thick and showed no sign of letting up. He asked the guy on the other end to set up a booth for him with a redhead, preferably tall and strong rather than slender, with eyes like a night sky just before morning. He hadn't phrased it quite like that, of course. The man replied, "Redhead. Okay, pal."
He crossed over to the black building, his boots splashing in the generous puddles, long coat flapping in the gusts of wind. He was already soaked; he didn't bother buttoning it. He entered through a set of creaking, dark double doors. Perhaps once they had been nice. Now they were weathered, shameful little portals to this pleasure pit. Yoji sighed and slipped through them.
A man watching TV sat in the small red lobby (everything was red, Yoji duly noticed; the walls, the ceiling, the threadbare carpet. The world was teasing him). "Name?"
"Balinese," he replied, his voice sounding strained and tired. As if he really didn't want to be here. Which was true. He wanted to be somewhere warm and dry, with the real thing, not some imitation. He wanted --
The swarthy man set down his remote control to give him a key. "Room 7. If she invites you into the room, you can do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt her. Got that pal? You hurt her, I come in there with a baseball bat."
Invited him into the room? Whatever that meant. Yoji nodded, feeling like his body was there but his mind wasn't. His mind was still someplace dry and warm, with the real thing.
He walked down the hall, suddenly feeling cold as the air-conditioned currents caught his moist skin. He peeled off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. Someplace dry and warm.
He came to a row of iron doors with a number stamped on each one. He could hear faint moaning from behind the doors, the sounds of other lonely men looking at a treasure they wanted but could never have. There was no way that the punk at the front desk could hear anything unless he had some sort of sound system rigged up. Pervert, Yoji thought, then rescinded it. He had no right to make judgments anymore.
He walked down that endless red hallway to door number 7. He reached out and opened it. The stale, hazy light from the hallway spilled over a cushioned chair in a tiny room, not more than 3 by 4 feet. He slipped inside and closed the door behind him. He sat down in the chair, and suddenly this dark little world was real. He was really here, in this cramped, dirty space, about to watch some girl strut her stuff. because he paid her manager to do it.
He looked up as a light in front of him turned on. There was a thick glass window only a foot away from his face. Behind it, a black floor lamp with a thin red veil over it lit the room a rosy color. A red bed, draped with thick, plush sheets, sagged under its own weight at the back of the room. A white lamp closer to the window dissipated some of the red hue as a girl rose up from the bed and walked toward a chair directly opposite Yoji's.
She was tall and rangy, late twenties, and not Japanese. Her eyes were brown with dark green flecks. Her hair was naturally red. She had freckles and had used makeup to try to cover them. She wore a black bra and underwear with a translucent black camisole. She wore a silver key around her neck. Stockings gripped the top of her thighs, and her black high heels looked like they could have belonged to a twenties movie star. She moved gracefully, like a dancer who accepted her life; perhaps she didn't see her sexuality as something that should be hidden. She sat down, her legs crossed, and smiled softly at him.
"Hello, stranger. My, you're a looker! What's your name?" Her voice echoed out through a speaker in the wall, sounding slightly tinny.
He smiled back, haltingly. When had he ever had a problem smiling at a woman before? "Balinese."
"Mmm. Exotic," she replied in approval, crossing her legs the other way. "My name is Saffron -- "
"Aya," He cut her off, surprising himself. "It's Aya."
She smiled, a bit disconcerted. "Ok. My name is Aya." She stood up and walked behind the chair, leaning over the back of it, giving Yoji a good look at her cleavage. "What would you like me to do, Mr. Balinese? I can dance." She walked very close to the window and pressed her hands against it. "I can strip. I can. Well, your imagination is your only limit."
He stared at her long limbs, but it wasn't what he was hoping for. He couldn't impose Aya onto her. No one was as impressive, lithe or beautiful or hot-headed or icy! Well, well. Here he was, Yoji, the lady killer, and he had lost all interest in women.
That means you're in love, babe, in the worst kind of way, he thought to himself. "No, you're not Aya," he whispered. "Why am I here?"
"Honey," she said, sitting down tamely in the chair. "Did you ask Tanaka for a redhead in particular?"
Ah, the dusky man at the counter. With the baseball bat. "Yes, I did," Yoji admitted.
"You were lookin' for a substitute, hm?"
He looked up at her, green eyes wide under still-damp locks of deep golden hair. "You ever thought about being a TV psychic?"
She laughed, her bosom bouncing. Yoji watched it, and felt nothing. Love in the worst kinda way, he repeated to himself. "Well, Mr. Balinese, today is your lucky day." She got up, smiling, and pressed her forehead against the glass. "I'm going to give you exactly what you want."
She grinned at Yoji coyly, then turned off both lamps, shrouding both rooms with shadows.
"Saffron?" He called after a few moments of silence. No reply. Then he heard it. Somewhere in the shadows before him, heavy footfalls grazed the threadbare floor. It sounded as if someone who was very light was wearing heavy boots. He panicked. It must have been Tanaka! The manager was angry at Yoji for wasting his girl's precious time.
The white lamp switched on.
Yoji blinked and felt his breath leave him. The black-clad figure had somehow reached through the glass and sucked it out of him.
"Yoji," Aya greeted him with a perfectly calm countenance.
Yoji stared up at Aya, his mouth agape, damp coat still hanging from his cold fingers. His entire body temperature was starting to rise. An embarrassed flush crept into his cheeks.
"This isn't what it looks like, Aya," he managed feebly.
Aya leaned back, staring down at him. Yoji could only imagine what Aya thought in response to that. Isn't what it looks like? It looks like you paid a redheaded girl to dance for you and then felt guilty about it. What is it supposed to be?
He pulled off his own perfectly dry trench coat, revealing a tight-fitting silk black shirt rather than the usual orange turtleneck. Yoji held in a gasp, reveling at the way the material clung to Aya's shapely torso. "You're soaking wet." Suddenly, Aya knelt. Yoji looked down to see a sliding box just under the window. Aya put his coat in it and passed it through to him. "Put it on."
Stunned, incapable of making one of his usual witticisms, Yoji put the coat on. It was a bit small for him, but not a bad fit. Unconsciously, he breathed deeply; his spine-tingled at the scent of leather, flowers, and Aya. The coat was very warm, and Yoji realized that before then, fine shudders had been running through his body. They ceased. "Thanks, Aya." Aya straightened again, his eyes, like violet waves, washing over him.
Silence descended on them. Yoji stared up; Aya stared down. Yoji bunched his hands into fists. Why doesn't he just come out with it and ask me? What am I, king of all players, doing in a place like this? Why doesn't he leave? Or ask me to go home? Why.
"I can't believe the rain is still going." Aya stated.
Yoji blinked in shock. "W-what?"
"The rain. When will it stop, do you think?" Aya locked his hands behind his back and made a single, small circle with his boot. He looked like a curious young man now, not the icy killer Yoji had come to know. Another facet. Aya charmed him all over again.
He blinked. "Aya, why are you so dry? I don't see an umbrella."
The redhead half-turned from him. "Aren't you more interested in how I came to this place?"
Yoji nodded despite himself.
Aya shifted again and planted himself directly in front of the window. Yoji stared up at his marble features, so carefully chiseled, once again in awe of the beautiful assassin. "Then first, you tell me exactly what you are doing here."
"Tell you my story?" Yoji panicked inwardly, his eyes momentarily growing as wide as saucers. Tell you that I've been fantasizing about you for months now, and was too cowardly to speak up, for fear of. what? Of losing your respect.
The dreaded questions came next. "Are the clubs too boring now, Yoji? Why this place? This is the kind of place that we shut down." Yoji closed his eyes and imagined himself, once again, some place dry and warm -- anywhere but here. "Why a redhead?"
But he wasn't at some other place. He was here, with Aya. He looked up at him in silence, his throat suddenly swollen with words -- curses and declarations of love alike. He could only gaze at him meaningfully.
The stare must have been powerful -- Aya stepped backwards. "Are you. Yoji, are you hiding?"
"Hiding?" He dumbly repeated the word, breaking eye contact. He looked at the red lamp, far behind Aya. "You could say that. It's better than facing the truth."
"And what truth is hidden in this place?"
"That I love you."
A hand flew up to cover his mouth. All this worrying, all these careful arrangements -- all ruined because his throat decided to open and give up the ghost.
That's it, he thought soberly. Aya's going to yell at me. Or leave me here. He'll go to Manx. He'll request that she speak to Persia to have me removed from Weiss. I'll never see him again. He buried his face in his hands.
"Hn." Was all Aya had to say. Yoji lifted his head from his palms. The other assassin shrugged. "Well, my turn now. As promised."
What? Yoji certainly hadn't been expecting this!
"I heard footsteps downstairs a couple of nights ago. It was late, midnight. I grabbed my katana and slipped down the stairs, and, seeing no lights were on in the shop, I figured I had been right in guessing that burglars were trying to get what they could from the register. But then I saw you, on your phone, whispering: 'That's what I said. We can talk about the price later. Just make sure you get it right. My name? Balinese.' I thought perhaps you were tying to take a mission by yourself. You were shaking. You put on your jacket and lit a cigarette. You left, leaving your cell on the counter.
"I know I shouldn't have done this, but I did, and I'll admit it to you. I picked up the phone and traced the number back." A slightly amused expression flitted across his face and was gone. "Imagine my surprise. And when I asked Tanaka what you had wanted, he told me, for a very small fee, that you were looking for a tall, athletic redhead. Generous man -- he even gave me your appointment time. I arrived several hours before hand to question Saffron, who was generous, as well. She let me take her place in this room for free. She hid me and told me to wait; she would come get me."
"Well, Mr. Balinese, today is your lucky day. I'm going to give you exactly what you want," Yoji repeated breathlessly.
A smile graced Aya's lips. He reached down into his shirt and pulled out a small, silver key, the one that had been around Saffron's neck.
Yoki recalled Tanaka all of a sudden: "If she invites you into the room, you can do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt her."
Aya slipped it through the sliding box, and the smile turned into a grin.
"I'd like to invite you in, Yoji."