Chapter 1: Everyone Okay?
It was mostly Nagi who got them out of there. All eight of them. Schwarz on one shore, Weiß on the other.
Aya crawled out of the water, dragging an unconscious Yohji with one hand and supporting a delirious Ken with the other. Omi was somewhere, he knew that, on Ken's other side, and as soon as their knees touched the ground, Aya left Ken to Omi and pulled up Yohji's head, higher, worried that the man had already got his lungs full of water. Yohji wasn't moving, which was bad, but relieved, Aya confirmed that he was breathing. That meant he was just unconscious. Aya glanced behind them, across the water. He had no idea where Schwarz were, but he suspected they had survived.
Crawford was sitting and he wasn't dragging anybody, but he, too, was looking across the water. He knew exactly where Weiß were, and he knew they would survive.
"Everyone okay?" Nagi's voice mumbled. The boy lay on his back, his eyes closed, his arms round Schuldig, whose head rested on top of his chest. Farfarello was somewhere, Crawford knew it, the silver-haired man had been the one to yank the precog up to the surface just then.
"Everyone is okay," Crawford replied, in that way the man who had seen it would.
"Schuldig isn't moving," Nagi shifted under the limp telepath. "Connection snapped, I can't feel him anymore."
Crawford looked in mild surprise, like he'd only now noticed. He leaned closer and tried the telepath's pulse, giving away a doubt Nagi hadn't anticipated. But after a moment the precog relaxed again. Pulse was there.
"It must have been harder for him than I thought," Crawford conceded and brushed back a handful of wet red bangs. Nagi called the gesture affectionate. The precog pulled open one eyelid to inspect the vacant blue eyes with a clinical expression. Nagi called it concern.
Farfarello was the first one up on his feet, of course. But he didn't speak; he was content standing nearby, waiting for instructions.
"Let's go," Crawford said. It was the sign he'd been waiting for, Farfarello came over to them and grabbed Nagi's shoulders, pulling him up. The one-eyed man easily hoisted the boy on his arms, just like they had planned.
There was something they hadn't planned, though. Nagi stared at Schuldig as he held onto his aching head. He was shaking. "What about..?"
"I will carry him." Crawford was already slipping his arms underneath the unconscious telepath. He managed to make it look easy, Schuldig's head resting on his shoulder, the redhead's arms hanging limply.
They didn't really have time to waste. It was all over, but only as much as it would ever really be over. They might have interrupted the ritual, destroyed the Elders and delivered a possibly fatal blow to Eszett, but they had not demolished the entire organisation. Nothing would ever really be over.
Crawford knew that when he gave one more glance over his shoulder toward the darkness of the murky waters and the shore he couldn't really see.
And really, Aya knew it too.
"It's taking him awfully long to wake up."
Crawford gave an indistinctive sound from somewhere over the screen of his computer. Nagi lay on the bed, staring at the telepath lying sprawled next to him. Farfarello sat in the corner with his knife, turning it round in his hands absently. Who knew what he thought. Right now, Schuldig wasn't awake to tell.
"No, really," Nagi continued and turned on his side, placing his hand on top of Schuldig's shoulder, starting to look worried. "He's never been out this long before after a job."
"He's never done anything like this before," Crawford said calmly and jotted down some notes into his little black book, which Schuldig liked to call his secret diary. He was right, of course. Schuldig had never used as much energy as he had in protecting their minds from the Eszett's Elders that night.
The door opened. Her eyes were bright and happy and blue mounds of hair bobbed on both sides of Tot's head as she walked into the room with a tray filled with cookies, sandwiches, milk and juice. "They were all out of candy bars," she said cheerfully, "but I brought cookies instead."
"Thank you, Tot," Crawford said politely. He was always polite with her. Nagi hadn't been sure why, until he'd seen how she smiled at him and did things for him, like now as she brought him the sandwich and set it down next to him, along with the orange juice.
"You're welcome, Uncle Brad." That was another thing, she'd come to call him Uncle Brad, and it was a little bit funny how she was the only one who was allowed to use his first name. Nagi was certain it made Schuldig bitter, but he didn't say anything. He didn't like the way Schuldig laughed at her, so the redhead wasn't getting any sympathy from the teenager.
Tot approached Farfarello far more cautiously, Nagi wondered if she remembered what he had done; all the same, the one-eyed man paid but brief, passing attention to her and grabbed his lunch. Then she came to Nagi and sat with him on the bed and played with his hair while he ate. He was, really, rather happy.
Schuldig was still unconscious. His back safely turned toward the others, Crawford frowned while leafing through the empty pages of his little black notebook, worried because he couldn't see a thing.
Aya ― Ran, for he would no longer carry her name ― made an indistinct noise, as he was often wont to do. But when he realised she was looking at him, he had to answer. "Yes, Aya. They'll be fine."
He hoped that the first thing he was telling her wouldn't be a lie. His eyes lingered on the sleeping figures on the beds. Worst was Ken, really. He'd nearly got his skull smashed. But there was no apparent reason for why Yohji was still unconscious. That worried Ran, really, more than Ken's condition did. The expression on Yohji's face haunted him. He didn't really want to look at him when he was like that. Yohji wasn't natural when he was still, like that. And it reminded him too much of the hell he had just got out of. Reminded him of his sister's face on the hospital bed.
Ran squeezed her tighter under his arm. It wasn't a lie. Yohji would wake up. Just like she had done.
Schuldig opened his eyes.
"He's awake," Farfarello noted from the couch. He hadn't been sleeping, then.
Crawford glanced at the telepath. Nagi saw the slight shift in the posture and expression ― Crawford was caught, he had been worried.
But then, suddenly, Schuldig started up, at first clambering up on his hands and knees, looking round with wide, wild eyes, and his eyes shifted from one man to the other, briefly passing Tot also, like his horror was building with every new face he saw. He shied away from Crawford in particular, fell right down from the bed and then started to stumble toward the door, looking like he was escaping for his life. Even the Oracle seemed too stunned to react, so the only thing that prevented the redhead from leaving was Nagi's instinctive use of his powers to keep the door locked.
Schuldig tore at the door knob for a moment before he whirled round and stood with his back toward the door, fumbling for his sleeves, looking like he was actually preparing for a fight.
"What do you want from me?" the redhead hissed, and there was something odd about the way he spoke, it didn't really sound like Schuldig.
Crawford stood, very, very slowly.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked, frowning.
Schuldig didn't seem to be finding whatever it was that he was looking for from his sleeves and instead, looked Crawford with his hands held up, like he was actually preparing for a fist fight. His eyes were darting round the entire room. "I asked you first!" the redhead growled. "What do you want from me?"
Oracle stared in one of those rare moments of confusion that both amused and frightened Nagi. The teenager tried to sit up but had to flop down on the bed before he'd even got all his muscles properly moving. Using his talent, just enough to shut Schuldig's escape route, had drained him. It would take him weeks to recover fully after the tower incident.
Crawford approached the telepath, looking a little wary. Schuldig stared at him, raising his fists a little into an obvious warning. Crawford didn't stop, he kept walking, slowly, like he was approaching a predator. He looked like he was concentrating. Very, very hard.
And then, just a few steps before he reached the redhead, his expression shifted and he stopped. He actually paled. Considerably.
"What's your name?" Crawford asked.
Nagi frowned. Farfarello's expression was mute, Tot seemed confused. Schuldig ― well. He looked dubious.
"Excuse me?" the redhead asked suspiciously.
"Just answer the question," Crawford said, his voice more impatient.
"Is this some kind of a sick joke?" Schuldig asked sarcastically. "Of all the people, I'd think that you would be able to see..."
Crawford actually lost his patience, he leapt at the redhead and grabbed his throat, slamming him hard against the door. "Just answer me!" he hissed. While strangling the redhead, he brought out a gun and buried its muzzle into Schuldig's cheek. "What's your name? Say it, or I'll kill you!"
The telepath grimaced and grabbed the precog's arm, struggling for air. "Fine!" he crowed. "My name is Yohji Kudou! As if you didn't know that!"
A complete silence fell into the room for a moment. Nagi stared at the redhead with eyes wide, wide open. Farfarello raised his brows. And Crawford ― Crawford's gun tilted, just a bit, his eyes looked like they were searching the other man's face.
Nagi was the first one to speak. "But... what does that mean?"
Crawford turned and threw the redhead from his hands toward Farfarello. "Tie him up."
Schuldig opened his mouth for an objection, "Hey..."
"And gag him as well," Crawford added.
Farfarello grabbed Schuldig's mouth and threw him expertly down on the couch. The telepath struggled, but Farfarello didn't seem to have too much trouble. Crawford looked at it all with a grim expression. Once Schuldig was bound and gagged, Farfarello stepped back. They all stared at the glowering telepath.
"So," Farfarello spoke, "I take it that this wasn't part of the plan."
"Oh." Ran's lips twitched for a smile. "It was about time."
Yohji frowned, just a bit. He moved his hands on the bed tentatively, as if he was worried that he wouldn't be able to, then he frowned some more, staring at Ran's face, looking puzzled. Ran felt a stab of worry.
"How are you feeling?" the redhead asked and came closer, his eyes studying Yohji in concern. This seemed to cause more confusion, Yohji raised a brow.
"A little dizzy," he answered, slowly. His eyes scanned Ran's face as the redhead stopped next to the bed. Ran leaned down and brushed the back of his fingers across Yohji's forehead like he was testing whether he had fever. Yohji was beginning to look decidedly freaked out, which bothered Ran and caused him to snatch his hand back.
"That's all?" Ran asked, a bit more curtly.
Yohji didn't answer right away. "What happened?"
Concern shaded Ran's eyes again. "You don't remember?"
"I'm not sure."
Ran thought back to what had happened to Yohji, right before the tower had collapsed. He wasn't sure himself, he'd been busy with the leader of Schwarz at the time. But he remembered seeing Yohji engage Schuldig. What had the telepath done? Yohji had looked like he'd actually got the better of Schuldig for a moment, Ran remembered, distinctly, Yohji's wire round the telepath's throat.
"You and Schuldig fought," Ran provided. "Then the tower collapsed... I'm not sure how, but we all ended up into the water..." He shrugged. "We survived."
Yohji's facial expression had shifted while Ran was talking. He ran his fingers through his hair and pulled a lock out in front of his face, looking at it. Ran was mildly amused. Even after all of this, Yohji was concerned over the condition of his hair? Yohji touched his hair for a moment, looking a little absent-minded. "All of us?" he asked.
Ran nodded, slowly. "Yes. Well. Ken got bashed pretty bad by that Farfarello character. But they say he's going to be fine."
Yohji turned his eyes to Ran. He looked very concentrated. "And Schwarz?"
Ran shrugged. "I don't know," he said, intending to imply he didn't care.
"But they might have survived?" Yohji insisted.
"I think... they probably did." Ran frowned. "Why, is that important?"
Yohji didn't answer. "Where are we? The flower shop?" He definitely looked more focused now. Ran took that as a good sign; though, Yohji's eyes were, actually, rather more focused and intense than what Ran was used to. For Yohji, that is. It made Ran feel a little uncomfortable. He shook his head, and immediately Yohji went on, "At Sakura's?"
Ran made a face. He hadn't even come to think of suggesting imposing on the girl. But the fact that Yohji did, sounded a little more like Yohji. He shook his head again. "No, that would've been even more dangerous. It's some kind of a safehouse, I guess. I'm not really sure," he said. "Manx didn't say."
"Manx?" Yohji was staring at him, not blinking. So watchful. "That's right..." he whispered. "She was there... and... your sister."
Ran nodded slowly. "She's awake now."
"Yes." Yohji started to smile. "You're free."
The statement had a strange effect on Ran. It was not unlike having forgotten something important, and being suddenly reminded, yet it was something he'd been thinking about, all those hours he'd stood next to Yohji, waiting for the other man to wake up.
Yohji's expression softened, changed. "Aya..."
"Ran," he corrected. He stared at Yohji. He couldn't begin to guess what was going on behind those green eyes right now. It was beginning to freak him out a bit. "It's Ran, now."
Yohji's eyes studied him. He nodded. He reached out his hand toward Ran. Ran's eyes fell to the offered hand. The blond gave an inviting gesture of the head. "Come here."
Ran was rooted to the spot.
The blond moved instead, crawled to the edge of the bed and snatched the other man's hand. Ran twitched, almost snatched it away, but then Yohji's lips were pressed against the back of Ran's hand. Lavender eyes widened.
"Come on, don't tell me you haven't thought about it," Yohji whispered, looking up toward Ran with a cocked head, his lips lingering near the redhead's hand.
Ran didn't answer. Couldn't answer.
"You've thought about it... remember, remember, how I wanted to help Asuka..." Yohji looked down, like it hurt. "Neu. And you wanted to fix your sister. You know that they were the same."
Something in Ran responded to this, God help him, something responded. He remembered telling Omi, once... how it was the same. He had recognised himself in Yohji that time, that selfish yet selfless desire that overrode everything else. That need to rescue that which was your own. But now...
"It's been over for me for a while now," Yohji said, looking up again. "...And now it's over for you too. Don't tell me you haven't thought about it. I know you have."
He had. He just didn't know what to do with it. Yohji was up on his knees, holding on to both of Ran's wrists now, meeting his eyes. Yohji was wearing the gentlest of smirks on his lips, softest of glints in his eyes. So very Yohji, and so very... foreign. Ran's eyes half closed as desire battled logic, his head tilted. Yohji didn't push it, he waited, his hair curling round the sides of his face, like he knew Ran would give in. Maybe he was right. But Ran hesitated, this was... he wasn't sure what this was, but it was unexpected, he wasn't sure, he just wasn't sure.
"Yohji! Yoh..! Oh." It was Omi, it snapped Ran from the moment, he looked up toward the door. Omi was standing there, his cheeks flushed, his eyes darting between his friends, looking confused.
Yohji smiled and sat down on his knees, let go of Ran's hands. Ran stood like a statue.
"Omi," Yohji said gently. "You're all right."
Omi smiled briefly, then glanced at Ran, then back to Yohji. "Um. Was I interrupting anything?"
Yohji laughed and threw his legs out of the bed, got on his feet, looked confident and cocky just like normal. Just like Yohji always did. Ran thought, maybe he'd imagined it all.
"So," Yohji said with a grin, "what's for breakfast?"
Chapter 2: This Isn't Star Trek
"You think he's somehow... you know..." Nagi made a gesture. "Picked up Balinese's brain pattern or something?"
"Brain pattern?" Crawford looked at him with a raised brow. "This isn't Star Trek."
Nagi rolled his eyes. "Well, I'm sorry that I'm not familiar with the proper terminology. Has he, though?"
"I don't think so." Crawford examined the tied-up Schuldig from across the room. They were speaking in low enough voices that the redhead wouldn't hear them, but of course, if it really was the telepath, he would hear them anyway. It was hard to tell from the glowering.
"How do you know?" Nagi looked at the precog dubiously. There were times when Crawford just, knew, things, but this didn't feel like one of those times. After all, if Crawford had foreseen this, he should have prevented it, right?
"I can feel it too," Farfarello said, like he was mentioning an irrelevant fact. He was leaning against the wall, turning his knife around in his hands absently. Nagi sat in the chair. Tot was reading her comics on the bed ― no point including her in the discussion.
Nagi looked at Farfarello in surprise. "You can feel, what?"
"It is not him," the silver-haired man said calmly. "I can feel it too."
The teenager looked dubious. "Then why can't I?"
Farfarello shrugged. "Perhaps he didn't like you as much."
"Didn't?" Nagi frowned. "Don't talk about him like he's dead. He's not dead. Is he, Crawford?"
But the precog didn't answer right away. His eyes didn't move from the redhead ― who, apparently, was not Schuldig. Nagi didn't want to believe it. Yohji Kudou? No way. He glared at the tied-up man on the other side of the room.
"Crawford!" Nagi demanded and grabbed the precog's hand.
Crawford looked at the telekinetic, now frowning. "No, he's not dead. I don't think so. But if that is Schuldig, he's completely forgotten who he is."
"It is not him," Farfarello said simply, like he was reminding them about the fact that the sun would rise every morning.
"Okay. Okay." Nagi folded his arms on top of his chest. "But if that's not Schuldig, who is he? Are you telling me that's Yohji? For real? Then what happened to Schuldig?"
Crawford looked at Nagi silently. He said absolutely nothing. The teenager was not an idiot. The expression in his eyes shifted, softened.
"Schuldig is in Yohji's body?" Nagi turned to look at their prisoner. "Schuldig... is one of the Weiß?"
They all stared at their prisoner for a moment while the thought really settled in. Then they looked at each other. Crawford took his glasses off and rubbed the corners of his eyes, near the nose.
"I can just imagine the damage," he murmured.
"Damage to Schuldig... or damage to Weiß?" Nagi's lips twitched, Farfarello grinned.
Crawford sighed and put his glasses back on. "Both."
Schuldig got his breakfast ― late night supper, really, but he insisted. After all, he had just woken up, it was morning for him. Omi prepared sandwiches for him, Ran had disappeared. Then Omi went to check up on Ken upstairs. Schuldig didn't really care to listen to them. Omi tasted like marshmallows and Ken's pain was dull and numb and all physical. Everyone else was asleep.
Except for Ran. Schuldig listened to him move in the other room, listened to the broken, interrupted thoughts, hastily cleaned away like trash before the guests came in. But nothing was clean, there, in Ran's mind. And his guest loved it that way.
So Schuldig sat at the table, an unlit cigarette between his lips. Techno music was blasting in the radio on the corner of the kitchen table. He moved the cigarette in his mouth to the rhythm of the music with his lips and tongue, side to side.
He heard Ran approach well before the redhead stopped in the doorway, staring, his katana in one hand.
Schuldig moved the cigarette rhythmically.
"What the hell are you doing?" Ran was frowning.
"Come and get it," mumbled Schuldig from one corner of his mouth.
"What?" Ran's expression bordered on alarmed.
Schuldig nodded toward the radio. "Come and Get It. Paul Van Dyk. The song, you idiot. I'm listening to music. This shit never gets old." He picked the cigarette off his lips and smirked toward Ran, leaning back in his chair.
Ran stared at him. He was bothered, uncertain, so many thoughts, so many delicious thoughts behind those quiet lavender pools, where you'd never guess to look for them, unless you were a nosy, that is, a perceptive telepath.
Schuldig smirked and dangled one arm over the back of his chair. "I was bored," he elaborated.
"Whatever." Ran started to turn away.
Ran knew he was going to regret it, but he stopped anyway. "Yeah?"
"Why don't we go to a club tonight?"
Ran turned his head, just a bit, staring down, then finally he looked all the way across the room to the other man's smiling face. He marvelled about how the blond just lounged on that chair like he owned the whole kitchen, relaxed and unconcerned. So like himself. Yohji had always been the odd one out. The one who could somehow let it all flow past him and yet... Ran knew that out of all of the Weiß, Yohji was perhaps the one who understood about pain the best.
"Club." Ran looked at the floor. "I don't g..."
"You didn't go to clubs," Schuldig corrected before Ran had had the time to finish the whole sentence. "What's stopping you now?"
"Manx wouldn't like it."
Schuldig raised his brows. "Are you telling me we're grounded?"
"You're telling me you're not going stir-crazy?"
Ran didn't answer, but if he had, the answer would have been no. He was anxious. Anxious enough to have polished his katana for the third time that night. And Schuldig knew it.
"Then what's to stop us?"
"Can take care of herself for one night. Omi and Ken can look after her. She can go play with Sakura. Manx can take them all out for ice cream. Come on, Ran!" Schuldig was on his feet and coming closer. "You're just making excuses. You've been living for Aya for, how many years? It's time you start living for yourself."
The blond grabbed Ran's arm. Held on. Tight. Ran looked up, sideways, his face silent, hiding his hesitation. Or did it hide anything? The green eyes were so understanding, so soft just like that, such expression. Ran looked away and nearly escaped, but the blond held on, and the hold stopped him.
"Come on, Ran," Yohji's voice whispered again, he was very close to Ran's shoulder now. "Try and remember what it was like... to be free."
Ran closed his eyes. It felt like a jump into cold water on a hot day. You knew it would be refreshing, you wanted it, but at the same time, you were afraid of the sting.
"Just stop thinking... for one night," Schuldig went on, next to Ran's ear, feeding the flames that were growing inside the redhead. "Let me show you how I do it."
Ran felt almost dizzy, it was like his head was aching, all thoughts and concerns were like snakes in his brain, and what Schuldig was offering was escape from all that. The redhead heard his answer almost before he'd made up his mind, "Okay. I'll go change."
Schuldig grinned and let go. He hung the cigarette off one corner of his mouth and walked to the radio, turned up the volume and moved his hands, moved his feet, moved his hips, Ran couldn't bear to watch. By the time Schuldig looked over his shoulder again, the redhead was gone. But he would be back.
The smile lingered on Schuldig's lips, then faded. The telepath switched the channel on the radio and turned down the volume. His expression was much more concentrated as he listened to the news.
Crawford clicked his tongue. "We need to find Schuldig," he said. "Get them back together... hope that he can do the switch back."
"Hope?" Nagi made a face. "If it was an accident, how do you know he even..."
"Nagi." Crawford looked down. His voice was quiet, impatient. Nagi swallowed the rest of what he'd been about to say. The precog didn't know. And Nagi should know how much that hurt his pride. Maybe something else, too, considering it was Schuldig.
"Okay." Nagi glanced toward the redhead. "But how are we going to find him? The flower shop?"
Crawford pursed his lips. "Perhaps."
"Why don't we just wait for him to find us?" Farfarello suggested.
"How would he do that?" Nagi asked impatiently, rubbing his temples. "We're changing hotels all the time."
Farfarello shrugged. "He is a telepath," he said as if that would explain everything. "He can home in on us."
Nagi stared. "He's a telepath, not a pigeon."
Crawford considered the silver-haired man as if he actually took the suggestion seriously. But then he shook his head. "Even if it was possible, it would take time." He pursed his lips. "And he might not be able to leave Weiß without causing suspicions."
Nagi bit his lip. Hard. "Are you sure he can stay with the Weiß without causing suspicions?"
"Behave," Crawford chided gently. "Either way, I think it's best we go get him."
"How?" Nagi asked. He didn't like to admit it, but he was tired. Every time they changed hotels, it exhausted him. The extra effort needed to search through Tokyo for Schuldig? It felt impossible.
"Perhaps he knows where Weiß would be," Farfarello suggested, pointing his knife at their prisoner. Without asking or waiting for permission, the silver-haired man got on the move. The redhead's eyes widened as Farfarello landed in front of him and stuck one knee against his chest, pushing him down on his back. The one-eyed man flicked his knife to cut off the gag and then put the blade directly under the man's chin against the throat. "Where can we find the rest of the Weiß?"
The redhead stared at him, eyes wide at first, then narrowing. "I won't tell you anything."
Farfarello's face caught on a kind of glow and the single yellow eye burned as he lovingly wrapped each finger of one hand around the prisoner's throat, squeezing. "Oh, will you not?"
"Farfarello," Crawford said delicately. "Is that any way to treat our guest?"
The one-eyed man turned his head sharply to look at his leader, licking his lips. Blue eyes flitted between Farfarello and Crawford, suspicious. The precognitive leaned down and gave a pleasant smile.
"Please forgive my associate's enthusiasm," Crawford said calmly. "But I believe you would like to help us locate your friends as much as we would."
Yohji, for that was who looked at them through those blue eyes, looked dubious. "Oh. And why is that?"
Crawford smiled and calmly walked to a table where Tot's mirror was. He picked it up and brought it over, kneeling in front of the prisoner. Yohji frowned and looked. And looked. His jaw dropped.
"What the hell?" he shouted and started struggling, looking horrified. Farfarello frowned and squeezed harder, pushing the redhead against the floor until all Yohji was able to utter was a pitiful choked sound.
"Careful, Farfarello," Crawford said calmly. "I think we'll need him yet."
"Hmm." Farfarello released his grip, just enough to allow Yohji to draw in a hoarse breath. The prisoner gasped several times, staring at the image in the mirror with wide, outraged eyes.
"What the hell have you done to me?" Yohji hissed, turning to look at Crawford.
"Would you believe me if I told you it was an accident?" the precognitive asked.
Farfarello looked at Crawford. "May I continue now?"
"No," Crawford said sternly. He put away the mirror and looked at Yohji calmly in the eyes. "Listen to me, Balinese. We have a common goal here. You want to get back into your own body and to your own team. We want our telepath back."
"How do I know this isn't all some kind of a mind trick?" Yohji insisted. "Maybe your precious telepath is right outside the door and I'm just imagining all of this, and you just want me to tell you where my friends are?"
Crawford examined him for a while. "That sounds awfully complicated."
"Yeah, well..!" Yohji bit his lip. "Prove to me that what you're telling me is real!"
"I could cut his face in front of the mirror," Farfarello suggested coolly.
"This is no time for jokes," Crawford said and didn't wait for Farfarello to comment whether he'd intended it as a joke or not. The precognitive got on his feet. "I'm afraid you only have my word for it, Balinese. But rest assured we will find your friends one way or another. It will just be quicker and less painful for you if you help us."
Crawford turned away and started walking toward the door. Nagi looked after him in surprise. "Crawford! Where are you going?"
The precognitive didn't turn round. "Keep an eye on Farfarello. Nobody touches the prisoner while I'm gone."
"Prisoner, huh?" Yohji shouted after him. "I thought I was a guest!"
Crawford paused near the door and looked over his shoulder with one of those smiles. "Guests cooperate, Balinese." Then he was out the door.
Yohji started cursing.
Nagi looked over to Farfarello. "Best put the gag back."
The blond was dancing, his hips hitting the rhythm perfectly, his hands high, the shirt clinging onto him like rain. Ran bit his lip and moved his eyes elsewhere. What was he doing here? This wasn't his kind of place, his kind of music, his kind of people.
"Ran." Yohji danced closer, no, close, he was smiling. "Come."
It was strange, he could swear Yohji wasn't really talking that loud, yet Ran could hear him clearly. Right now, though, he was far too uncomfortable to think more about it. Ran frowned, glanced around. Dance with Yohji, here? In front of all these people? He shook his head stubbornly.
"Oh I see, playing hard to get. You'd rather wait here until some pretty-eyes comes to pick you up?" Yohji asked, laughing ― then he winked. "Well, pretty eyes are right here. Come on."
It was impossible to miss the flirt. And it made him wonder if it had always been there, waiting, under the surface. Yohji came closer and grabbed the hand holding the drink. He lifted it up, to Ran's lips, tipped it, Ran closed his eyes and let the sharp burn wash down his throat again. It made the music sound a little different, made Yohji sound a little different.
"It's fine," Yohji whispered near the redhead's shoulder, grabbing his arm, very tight. Ran opened his eyes and saw those soft deep eyes again, mischievous and gentle. "Come on."
Ran downed the rest of his drink. The music definitely sounded better this way.
The blond pulled his arm, pulled, until Ran was forced to make his decision. Ran found himself giving in, again. Yohji grinned and led his catch to the dance floor. He let go only once the swarm of undulating people had closed round them, thus cutting off Ran's easy escape. The blond winked and his hips were moving again.
Ran just stood there. I don't dance, was what he was thinking, rather horrified.
"It's easy..." Yohji seemed to be whispering, though if he whispered, Ran shouldn't have been able to hear it, and the man's mouth hadn't really been moving either, had it? Maybe he was imagining it. Ran frowned, feeling self conscious and uncertain. His eyes followed Yohji's hand as the blond let it travel down, down his side. A girl was watching them, Yohji seemed to notice, and the blond smirked and winked to her, slow and lazy.
Ran took a step back. Immediately Yohji's eyes snapped to him and the blond shook his head, lifted his hands, snapped his fingers, swayed his hips in perfect rhythm. "Come on, Ran! Follow my lead! You can do it..." Yohji smirked.
The girl was watching still, she was looking at Ran now, grinning, really. She ran her eyes appreciatively over his body and thrust with her hips, like she, too, was challenging him. Ran had exactly two choices ― escape and have Yohji laugh at him afterwards, or jump in and risk making an ass of himself.
Risk was always preferable to certain defeat.
Ran closed his eyes, that made it easier. He listened to the rhythm, it was a good DJ, really, a good song. Had that beat. And it wasn't that he couldn't keep the beat, you didn't become a good fighter if you didn't know how to move, it wasn't really that different from katana practice, was it?
Ran was impressive when he moved, Schuldig decided. Like black and dark red fire, a natural, with powerful, liquid movements, no hesitation. Schuldig smirked to the girl, who was watching them both now, impressed, horny.
Come, the telepath called them both, suggested, really, just there on the subliminal level where they would barely notice. She danced closer, her small fragile body fitting easily in between their bigger ones. Schuldig put one hand on her neck and looked over her shoulder to Ran.
Ran opened his eyes to see a wicked smile look up at him next to a girl's head. Schuldig reached out his hand and grabbed Ran's wrist, brought it on top of her hips, she allowed it though Ran himself might have shied away. Not while the blond was holding on to his hand, though. And Schuldig's hand remained there, on top of Ran's.
Ran knew this was wrong, on some level. On many levels, probably. But something in him wanted to care less and less.
Chapter 3: Always Such Trouble
This chapter has been sitting waiting to be finished for about 8 months at this point. I came to the sudden realisation as I picked up the half-written chapter that... my writing style has changed a little. As has my internal character image on some of the characters. As a result, starting from chapter 3, the story might possibly be written in a slightly different voice.
Anyway! Essentials haven't changed, characterisation should only improve from here on and the plot remains as indeed do the pairings. Hope you enjoy!
It was raining. Crawford sat in a car parked in a dark alley. The precognitive's fingers tapped on the steering wheel to the sound of the raindrops on the roof of the car. His gaze focused on the raindrops obscuring the car windows.
"Always such trouble," he muttered and closed his eyes. //Schuldig?//
The precognitive opened his eyes and heaved a light sigh. Then he slipped out of the car into the rain, pulling up his collar. He didn't bother hiding behind corners or slinking along the alleyways. He promptly crossed the street and walked to the correct building. He paused in front of the window of the flower shop for a moment. They would have been foolish to return here.
Crawford circled round the building to the back door. He went about picking the lock efficiently and then pushed the door open. Crawford pulled out his gun from inside the trenchcoat as he stepped inside calmly. He paused to listen. The house was quiet. For the moment.
The broad-shouldered figure stole across the room silently as a cat. He slipped into the hallway and then paused again.
//Schuldig?// He wasn't sure what made him try again. If the telepath hadn't answered the first time, it wasn't likely he would do it the second time.
Seconds ticked by as water dripped off the wet black bangs and the trenchcoat. Still quiet. A sharp click broke the silence as Crawford cocked the hammer of his gun.
The precognitive flitted through the house like a ghost. That was what he began to feel he was, a ghost, because the whole time, he met no one. He headed upstairs, staying close to the wall, his gun at the ready.
It was still silent. He closed his eyes and rested his hand on the railing briefly. He was about to start down the hallway... and then, suddenly, the warning came. He swung round and brought his gun up. He found himself face to face with a grim-looking old woman, who was pointing a Glock directly to his head.
A discreet smile curved Crawford's lips. "Good evening, Momoe-san."
They stared at one another over the muzzles of their guns for a few moments. Her eyes narrowed.
"You're not here all alone, are you?" Momoe asked slowly.
"Funny," Crawford murmured. "I was about to ask you the same question."
She didn't even blink. "Funny."
Crawford didn't blink either. "Tell me where they are."
"You should have brought your telepath, demon."
This comment caused Crawford's facial muscles to relax into a strange expression, like life was slapped out of him. Suddenly, he let his gun drop.
"Listen," he said. "I need to find Weiß." He paused, his eyes gleamed in the darkness like two pieces of gold. "I have a proposition for them."
Momoe kept her gun aimed at the intruder's head, looking suspicious. "You? What makes you think they would be interested in any proposition of yours?"
"We have a common interest, now. What is left of Eszett is coming for Weiß and Schwarz both. If we work together..."
"What makes you think Kritiker would ever trust you?" she snapped.
Crawford let the gun hang loosely at his side for a moment. He examined her in silence. Then, with one flick of his hand, he pulled the gun, anticipating her response by ducking at just the right moment. A few gunshots were fired, she let out a surprised cry and there was a screeching meow ― and the next moment, Crawford was disappearing into the shadows. He paused, just before vanishing down the stairs, and looked over his shoulder.
"I could have killed you," he said coldly. "Think about that."
Then he was gone. She looked over her shoulder. Near the wall behind her she saw the silhouette of her cat's face carved from a series of obviously accurate bullet holes. Slowly, she lowered her gun and her gaze. On the floor, she caught something white. A piece of paper. Momoe picked it up and squinted at it thoughtfully.
Disneyworld. Cinderella castle. Tomorrow, 10PM.
They reached Ran's bedroom and Yohji opened the door. Ran pretended to stumble a little more than necessary as they made it to the bed, because he figured then Yohji would hold on to him a bit tighter. But instead, Yohji's grip loosened to let him flop on the bed. No. That's not what Ran wanted. Ran grabbed the blond and whirled him down. The redhead rested his weight heavily on top of Yohji, pinning him to the bed. Fuck yes. He'd been thinking about this for so fucking long. Yohji knew that, didn't he? He did. Ran's mouth found Yohji's easily. Yohji tasted like cigarettes, but that was okay.
Yohji wrapped his arms round Ran's waist and pulled him in, waist to waist, hip to hip, and... Ran kissed him some more.
Then someone cleared her throat nearby. Rather audibly.
Ran froze. His eyes opened. He saw Yohji's green eyes, half closed ― then he turned his head to look over toward the door. The red-haired woman was standing with one hand resting on her hip, looking very, very impatient.
"Boys." Manx scanned their faces.
Ran blinked. His brain felt hazy but he was pretty sure he should have been more upset.
"Where have you two been?" she snapped. "I've looked for you everywhere ― are you two drunk?"
Yohji grinned. "Relax, Manx," the blond said. "We're just celebrating! We saved the world, the bad guys are dead..."
"Well," she snapped curtly. "I hope you're done celebrating, because I could use your help." She paused. "In the cellar."
Ran stared. That should have connected, somehow. Yohji frowned. "The cellar?"
"Yes." She looked expectant.
Yohji started to smirk. "You have a secret cellar, Manx?" he joked, looking like he was about to start laughing. "Well, I'm all for that. I bet you'll make a hot domina..."
But Ran started to understand. His eyes narrowed to slits. Suddenly, he felt it was very important that his mind wasn't so, well, drunk.
"Weiß?" Ran struggled to get up but ended up on his knees on the floor, in front of the bed. The redhead shook his head and touched his temple.
Only now, Yohji seemed to be catching on. "...Weiß?"
Manx nodded. "I have a new mission for you."
Yohji rolled his eyes. "Oh come on. Aren't we going to get any time off after crushing Eszett for you?"
Manx opened her mouth, appearing for a moment like she was going to argue. But her eyes dropped to the floor before she had said anything. She crossed her arms over her chest. "You're free to say no, of course."
Yohji looked at her from under his brows. Ran squeezed his fists against his head like he could just squeeze out the nausea he suddenly felt. Everything he had forgotten to think about for a few hours was rushing back. How could he ever have forgotten?
"I'm coming," Ran said and wanted to get up on his feet. He tried, but he ended up collapsing back into Yohji's lap. The blond's fingers twined in his hair and held on, like he didn't want Ran to leave. Ran closed his eyes, only to clear his head, really, but then, it felt nice here...
"Haven't we done enough?" challenged Yohji. "You got your bad guys. We saved the world. What did we get for it? And anyway, Ken's still not exactly in fighting condition, we'd be one member short. We can barely leave the safe house ―"
"That's what this mission is about," Manx snapped. "Momoe sent me a message. Schwarz contacted her."
This caused Yohji to let go of Ran's hair in obvious shock. Ran blinked up toward her face. That strange haze lifted maybe a little. He rubbed his eyes. He was really, really drunk, wasn't he? Completely unacceptable. What the hell would Aya think if she saw him like this?
Thinking about Aya helped. He needed to keep her safe. He couldn't be sure that she would be safe, yet. Not until they knew that Schwarz was dealt with. Schwarz. Schwarz had contacted Momoe.
"She's an agent?" Ran asked slowly, staring at Manx in complete silence. She wasn't serious.
She was. "I expect you to make your decision," she said softly. "Come with me... or leave Weiß. I'm sorry I can't give you the time you need to think right now." Her expression was much more serious as she looked at them both. Like she didn't even care about what she had walked in on... about whether they had just been all over one another, about to... about to... Ran started wondering what the hell they had been about to do, anyway. Ran didn't want to think about that. He tried to focus on what Manx had said. Cellar. Weiß... Schwarz...
Yohji stood up. "We're coming," he said, with a much sharper note in his voice. "Come on, Ran. I'll help you up." He leaned down and slipped his arm around Ran's upper body. He helped the redhead up on his feet.
Manx's expression finally broke toward a smile. "Glad to hear it." She turned around and walked out of the room. Ran still thought that she was taking to this... what she had seen, awfully calmly. No questions. Nothing. Maybe she really didn't care. Maybe she really never cared about any of them...
Ah, hell. Not a good moment for that sort of thing, Ran...
He realised suddenly that he was leaning heavily on Yohji again. Now it felt embarrassing and not amusing. Ran touched his temple again. Well, maybe his head felt a little clearer. Yohji was pushing him forward, damned if the blond didn't suddenly seem to be more interested in following Manx than in... in what they had just been, eh... Ran tried not to think about what they had just been doing, because now that he didn't feel quite as drunk, he wasn't sure if he felt like it had been such a good idea.
Yohji's hand moved against his back. It was definitely a caress. "We can pick that up later," whispered the blond near Ran's shoulder.
Ran didn't say anything, because he had no idea what he actually wanted to say. They were about to walk through the door and he realised that he really had no legitimate reason to accept Yohji's arm around him. He shoved it away and straightened his back. Yohji quirked an eyebrow in his direction. Stupid blond. Didn't he realise that...
"Ran?" It was a female voice. Ran's head snapped toward the girl standing in the corridor, looking confused and a little worried. Aya.
"Aya," Ran said, his voice a tad softer. Everything about him went just a tad softer whenever he saw her. Yes, Aya. She still needed him to protect her. Make sure she'd be safe.
"What's going on?" Aya asked.
Ran glanced at Yohji on instinct, because that was the first thing he thought about ― had she seen something? He had been so drunk, maybe he had forgotten to look around. His head was clearing more and more. What the hell had he been thinking? Hadn't he... hadn't he actually groped Yohji?
The green eyes glinted up toward him with a wicked smirk.
Ran felt so hot that he was certain that he was blushing. Was he? He hoped not. He wanted to look at Aya, talk with her, tell her it was okay, tell her... tell her she shouldn't worry. They just had some business with Manx. She shouldn't worry. He couldn't tell her what was really going on, but he should reassure her.
And all he could think about was that if he turned his head to look at her now, maybe she'd see how embarrassed he was and understand just exactly why that was.
Yohji to the rescue. He threw a smile toward the girl. "Everything's fine, Aya," he said. And then he was moving his eyes away from Ran ― toward Aya. And his eyes were still glinting.
Ran didn't like that at all. He frowned and grabbed Yohji's shoulder. He shoved him toward where Manx had disappeared. "We have business to take care of," he said, more gruffly than he'd intended. "Don't worry, Aya. Go back to sleep."
Aya hesitated. Yohji's gaze lingered on her, and something seemed to change in his eyes. Ran really didn't like it. Not the least. He held the blond's arm a little tighter. Yohji's eyes flicked up, at last, toward Ran's face. He started to smile and gave a toss of the head, in a way that Ran suddenly didn't recognise.
"Come on, then," Yohji purred. "Let's see what the bad boys want, huh?"
Crawford shut the door after him with a gentle click. "Where's Farfarello?"
"He needed something to do so I let him go get us some food rather than take his frustration out on... the prisoner. And I rather he doesn't stay in the same room with Tot for too long if we can avoid it." Nagi glanced toward his girlfriend, with a softening expression.
Crawford frowned. "I see." His eyes focused on the lump of red hair across the room. "You should be in bed, Nagi." Without a glance toward the teenager, Crawford walked sharply over to the prisoner. He grabbed a handful of red hair, apparently startling Yohji awake because the man twitched in surprise. Crawford gave a critical once-over to the defiant face. The precog's expression changed slowly, almost like melting ice. Crawford knelt down. He ran a hand over the redhead's face. The prisoner tried to yank his head away but Crawford held on tight enough to turn his knuckles white.
"Crawford..." Nagi said from somewhere over the precog's left shoulder, tentatively.
"I told you to go to bed," Crawford said. He didn't look at Nagi. "Balinese. You have a problem."
Yohji quirked a sarcastic eyebrow. Nobody needed to be a telepath to know what he was thinking. Nagi flitted back to the bed and collapsed on it. But he didn't move his eyes from the events over at the couch. Crawford tracked the shape of the redhead's cheek. He pulled the gag away. Yohji yanked his head again, spitting at Crawford's face.
Without particular effort, the precognitive ducked. He observed the few spots he had got on his suit shoulder with a gentle frown. "Was that really necessary?"
"Very well." Crawford looked at him seriously. "You're not following my point. You must understand what's happening to Weiß right now. Your friends. What remains of Eszett blames them for what happened."
Yohji glared a little more emphatically.
"That means they are in great danger..."
"You set us up," Yohji snapped. "You were planning on betraying your own all along..."
"No," Crawford cut in sharply. Sharper than Nagi had heard him speak since they had discovered that Schuldig was no longer in his body. Something tightened around the lines near Crawford's eyes, in the shape of his jaw. He was upset.
For a moment, it looked like Yohji could actually tell. He glared, maybe, a little less as confusion mingled in.
"No," Crawford said. Though is voice was calm, it had something in it. Something un-smooth, something... un-Crawford. "Eszett was never 'our own'."
Yohji frowned defiantly. "You served them..."
"As you serve Kritiker," Crawford interrupted him. "Are you doing it because of absolute loyalty then?"
Yohji's mouth snapped shut. Suddenly, he looked like he wanted to avoid looking at Crawford. The precog's fingers in his hair gripped just a little differently. Just a little gentler, maybe. His hand slid lower, toward Yohji's forehead. Shifted a few strands of red hair. Almost gently.
Almost, just a little, maybe, but in the end, in Crawford's discreet language, there was nothing almost, just a little or maybe about it, about the way he touched Yohji. Gentle. Nagi started feeling uncomfortable watching this. It was Yohji. Not Schuldig. Watching Crawford doing that subtle tenderness thing with Schuldig was bad enough. Watching him doing it with Yohji was just wrong.
"We never served Eszett for any reason other than our own," Crawford went on, floating softly through every word. "Are we really that different?"
"You set us up," Yohji said again, his eyes narrowing. "You killed Ouka. I don't even know how many people you've killed. You're expecting me to just..."
"Understand that sometimes killing is necessary," Crawford interrupted him. "That's all I expect you to understand. And I expect you to understand that without a telepath, I am in no position to protect your team."
"Protect my team." Yohji stared at Crawford, his expression changing. To call his face confused would have been like saying that water was a mildly moist substance.
"Yes," Crawford said. "We can protect you. That's my offer. One I'm about to present to your team, tomorrow."
"What?" Nagi leaped upright to sit on the bed, horrified.
"If you think they're going to exchange your telepath for me, you're mad," Yohji snapped. "They'll never believe you!"
Crawford didn't even blink. "That's possible."
"They'll kill you," Yohji said, his brows jumping up. High.
Crawford cocked his head to the side. "That's possible," he said again, softly. "But that's a risk I have to take."
"Crawford," Nagi started, but Crawford flicked his head, just enough to signal that this decision was not up for debate. Nagi's mouth snapped shut.
A silence settled. Yohji's and Crawford's eyes were locked in that way that Nagi would have said was familiar, if it wasn't the wrong mind, the wrong soul staring through those blue eyes at the golden ones. The teenager might almost believe that it was Schuldig, after all, especially with the way Crawford's hand lingered on that cheek. He'd touched Schuldig just like that while they had been waiting for the telepath to wake up. Nagi had caught him looking down at the telepath's sleeping face, a few times, with an expression he could only call hope, when Crawford had thought that the teenager, too, was sleeping. But he shouldn't be looking at Yohji like that. Yohji wasn't really one of them. Schuldig was, not this man, hiding behind those blue eyes.
Nagi started to wonder whether Crawford wasn't emotionally compromised, after all.
Yohji snapped his eyes shut. That seemed to give Crawford a shudder, barely detectable. Barely. But it was there, in a kind of jerk of one shoulder and a twitch of a few fingers near Schuldig's face. No... Yohji's face. Ah. Damn.
"If they'll kill me, you'll never get your body back. And who knows... they might hunt us down. Kill you thinking you're Schuldig," Crawford whispered. "Think about it, Balinese." With that, he stood up. He didn't replace the gag. He whirled around and met Nagi's eyes across the room. "How long has Farfarello been gone?"
Nagi swallowed. He badly wanted to argue about this, but in front of the prisoner... He looked at Crawford helplessly. But the precognitive just stood in silence, expectant and waiting. Nagi gave him one of those looks that promised that they would talk about this still before glancing toward the clock. The teenager bit his lip. It was all the answer Crawford needed.
"I'll go fetch him," Crawford sighed and started for the door.
But there was a voice from the couch. "Hey." Yohji sounded more silent. "If I do help you..."
Crawford paused, his hand on the door handle. He didn't turn to look. The prisoner said nothing, for just long enough for Crawford's hand to have time to start clenching on the handle again.
"What's your best offer?" Yohji glanced toward Crawford from under his brows.
The precog answered calmly, "You get your own body back. Your team remains safe."
Yohji's eyes narrowed. "All that just in exchange for the telepath?"
Crawford looked at the blond in the redhead's guise. His eyes wandered again, for a moment. "Well... I always thought I would have use for a private eye in my team."
Yohji shook his head. He was opening his mouth for a refusal, but Crawford turned the handle.
"For now, though," he said softly, "I really do just want to have my telepath back."
Then he opened the door and was gone again. Nagi's mouth hung just a tiny bit open. He hadn't heard that pronoun before the word "telepath" before. Nor had Crawford ever, ever spoken about Schuldig or to Schuldig with a tone like that.
Yohji nuzzled his cheek against the arm rest of the couch, looking thoughtful and a little less hostile. "He's in love, isn't he?"
Nagi did not answer. He was too busy staring flabbergasted at the door.
Outside in the corridor, Crawford made sure that the door was closed before smiling fondly. He shook his head just a little.
"You were right, Schuldig," he murmured. "Balinese really is a romantic."
Then he started down the corridor, walking just a little lighter with every step.