Chapter 1: Prelude
“Hey, Ken, where are the white roses?” Omi had to shout to be heard over the sheer volume of the crowd surrounding their tiny van. Despite not having been in their current location for long, girls were crowded a dozen deep, spilling across the sidewalk in a sea of white shirts and pleated skirts.
“We ran out yesterday!” Ken grimaced, trapped between the display he’d set up and the van itself. “I thought we ordered enough last week, but they’re gone.”
“Of course they are,” Omi muttered under his breath. He didn’t have time for this; he had exams coming up on top of the missions Kritiker sent with irregular frequency. He thought, somewhat resentfully, that the mobile flowershop was a far more successful business model than it had any right to be, and also that it was becoming too high profile to be an asset.
Too memorable , that was the argument Omi had made when the van had started getting the kind of attention the stationary flower shop had gotten in Tokyo. For all that little Aya was working the brick-and-mortar store with Ms. Momoe and Aya refused to be anywhere near his sister, whatever intern had come up with a mobile business as the perfect cover for their missions deserved to be shot.
“I’m so sorry,” Omi apologized to the redhead in front of him. “Would you perhaps prefer pink instead of white?”
The girl – not much younger than Omi himself – thought about it for far too long, bought the pink roses, and paid. Omi, with the grace of experience and training, navigated the next transaction, and the next, and the next, until the sun had started to approach the horizon and the throng of customers had dwindled to nothing.
“I’ll be back,” Yohji said abruptly, as soon as there was enough space for any of them to breathe. He pulled the apron over his head and maneuvered past Omi and out the side of the van. Aya stepped hastily out of his way as Yohji slipped around the back, heading toward the nearest spot of semi-private shade. Being Aya, he made it look as though he had simply decided to switch directions, and not getting run over by Yohji was simply a byproduct of his personal choice.
“I thought it was never going to stop,” Ken said, dropping to sit cross-legged on the ground amidst the now nearly empty displays.
“You say that like it wasn’t business as usual,” Omi said absently. “Can you run the numbers for re-ordering? I think we need to adjust.”
“It’s not like this is our real job,” Ken said. He managed to give off an air of restlessness even while sitting still, tapping the fingers of one hand along the ground until Omi could nearly see his clawed gloves.
“Protocol,” Omi snapped. There was a time and a place to discuss Weiß, and in front of their cover wasn’t it.
Aya, characteristically, said nothing, moving to clean up the remnants of the displays. What little stock remained went into its designated storage space while the displays themselves – designed initially by Kritiker and redesigned by Yohji after the first iteration failed to hold up to the press of the crowd – neatly folded into the undercarriage of the van itself.
“Give Aya a hand, would you, please,” Omi prompted, smiling for all he was worth.
Ken pulled a face at the less than sincere expression, but he started helping all the same. “We got anything today?” he asked, and that was really pushing the boundaries.
“Don’t ask again,” Aya said, before Omi could reprimand Ken for the almost innocuous question.
“Like you aren’t just as bored as I am,” Ken muttered, barely loud enough for Omi to hear, and then sighed. “Okay, okay, okay.”
“Can the two of you finish?” Omi waved a hand at the register. “This, too?”
“Why, you got something better to do?” For all that his words could have been rebellious or resentful, Ken moved toward the register willingly enough.
“Exams,” Omi reminded him. Non-standard classes were still classes, and he still hadn’t finished his third year of high school. Without high school, he couldn’t apply to college; being two years behind was going to put him at a disadvantage anyway, but the drama following little Aya’s kidnapping and then the debacle with the American military base hadn’t left him with much of a choice.
“Aren’t you done yet?” Ken asked, and Omi wasn’t sure if he really didn’t know or if he was just trying to push buttons. Ken hadn’t finished high school, not when he’d scored a contract as a professional J-League player just after turning sixteen. He’d dropped out of what wasn’t a mandatory education at the end of tenth grade and never looked back.
“No,” Omi said, striving to keep his tone mild. It wasn’t Ken’s fault that Omi’s entry into high school had been delayed by a year, until he’d successfully argued Kritiker into agreeing that having a high school education on paper would help him appear legitimate and work towards his cover. It wasn’t Ken’s fault, either, that Omi’s second year of high school had been interrupted by Schwarz and Schreient and G.I. Joe, and that he hadn’t been able to make it up in time to pass. “If I can pass my finals, I’ll only have one semester left to go.”
“Good luck,” Ken said, followed by, “Is that why we’re back in Tokyo this entire week? So you can take your test?”
Omi stifled a sigh. “Yes,” he said. He’d thought Ken had known about his schedule, keeping them on a tether never too far away from Tokyo so that Omi could attend the one single mandatory day of coursework a week, and be on campus for midterms in May and finals in July. Kritiker, ever obliging, had managed to schedule their other work without interfering with Omi’s campus attendance. Omi was privately of the opinion that it had been a near-miracle.
“Hey, I’m sorry.” Ken leaned up against him, wrapping his arms around Omi from behind. He held on just tightly enough to show that he was trying to be comforting, but not tightly enough that Omi couldn’t have slipped out of his grasp with minimal effort. “It’s just hot and it makes me cranky.”
“We’re all tired,” Omi murmured, accepting the apology for what it was. Ken, at least, made an effort to make amends when he snapped; the other two didn’t even try, and spending so much time in such a cramped space had been a difficult adjustment for all of them.
“Do you,” Ken asked, face buried in the curve of Omi’s neck.
“I really, really need to study,” Omi said. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, sure.” Ken stepped back. “It’s fine.”
That, too, was a byproduct of too little space and too much energy, and the gradual erosion of lip service to the roles dictated by what was socially acceptable. Even if Yohji preferred women, even if Aya seemed to prefer no one at all but participated occasionally with something resembling enthusiasm, the four of them had managed to take the edge off of their stress with each other. Omi couldn’t tell if it added to the always-present tension in the mobile shop or defused it.
Maybe both . He pulled his books out and wriggled into the corner he most often used for studying; he thought he could pass his exams even if something prevented him from opening a textbook over the next three days, but that was no reason not to make sure he wasn’t going to fail this year, too.
It might have been minutes or hours later that Omi felt a nudge against his foot. “Hey,” he heard, and when he looked up, Yohji was standing over him, hands in his pockets. He wore a sullen expression. “We have a visitor, kitty-cat.”
“What time is it?” His feet prickled with pins and needles as he unfolded himself and stood, and Omi stretched.
Yohji shrugged. “Late. Not late enough for me to finish a cigarette in peace.”
Someone had turned on the lights in the van while Omi wasn’t paying attention, and it was dark enough outside that Yohji should have had time to chainsmoke half a pack. Omi patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. “Manx?” he asked. “Or Birman?”
“Who else,” Yohji said, which didn’t answer the questions, and Omi followed him the few meters to what had been repurposed as their briefing area.
Manx stood waiting, red hair curled immaculately around her shoulders, with Birman seated in the one decent chair the mobile shop had to offer. She held her legs crossed at a precise angle, shoulders back, more stiffness in her posture than Omi thought the chair itself called for.
“Ah,” he said; Yohji had answered the question after all. Ken was sprawled out along the built-in bench under the window, and Aya leaned against the counter next to him. Birman glanced over the four of them and nodded once.
Manx stepped forward. “There is a mission available, should you choose to accept it.”
The phrase was standard; none of them were specifically required to accept any of the assignments Kritiker gave them. It was rare for anyone to refuse, particularly when an assignment came specifically tailored to someone’s set of skills, but the option was always given. Manx’s voice was inflected differently, though, and Omi found himself leaning forward.
“Cut the bullshit,” Yohji said, and Omi wasn’t surprised that he was the one who had spoken. “You’re both being weird.”
“As in, it doesn’t take two of you to relay an assignment,” Aya said, and Omi blinked. The presence of both of Weiß’ handlers was in and of itself the most significant indicator of an unusual situation, but he’d been wrapped up in the smaller details. It was sloppy of him.
“Perceptive,” Manx said, tone even, and Omi couldn’t tell whether or not it was sarcastic. “Persia hopes that you all accept.”
The current head of Kritiker wasn’t the same Persia who had sent Omi on his first mission, years ago. That man was dead, along with his brother, in a family feud played out through a spiderweb of assassinations set against less than legal business operations. As if, Omi reflected, the assassinations were on the side of the law. He wondered, sometimes, whether Kritiker had any moral ground to stand on at all, whether denying its targets due process was the right thing, or whether its targets truly were those who twisted the system to their advantage and let others pay the price.
“We can’t accept if you don’t tell us what it is,” Aya said, voice still clipped and cold. Getting revenge for his sister’s accident and knowing that she’d woken from a two-year coma miraculously whole hadn’t softened him in the slightest; he’d all but fled, when it had been gently suggested to him that he reintegrate into her life. Instead, all she knew was that he was alive but refused to see her. Omi wasn’t sure it was kindness, for either of them, and he realized his thoughts were wandering again.
“It’s not like we’re really going to say no,” Ken said, sounding almost reasonable, if Omi hadn’t been familiar with Ken’s slowly increasing eagerness to take on assignments. Any assignments.
“You are perhaps familiar with Roman Lux Enterprises,” Manx said smoothly.
“Lotion,” Yohji said. “Body spray. Shampoo. Soap.”
Birman smiled, briefly showing teeth. “It is not a young corporation,” she said.
“Okay?” Ken spoke into the waiting silence; Birman apparently expected some sort of reaction, but Yohji’s well of information had dried up, and none of the rest of them had observations to offer.
“Haven’t I seen more of their products – around?” Omi said. The packaging had changed, but the logo was still the same spiky mess it had always been, and he’d noticed it the last time he’d been in charge of the grocery run.
“Ah, you did notice.” Birman’s second smile was a little more secretive. Manx straightened.
“Roman Lux has had some new investors,” she said. “What was formerly a failing business, unable to hold its own in a competitive marketplace, is now ubiquitous across Japan.”
“It’s not a Japanese company,” Yohji said, apparently dredging up another scrap of information. “It’s all imported, right? That’s why it used to be more expensive.”
“Correct,” Manx said.
Omi paid close attention, as lack of attention to detail was what got operatives dead or worse on assignment, as Manx explained that the local investors were using Roman Lux as a cover to import a new class of drugs.
“Temporary superpowers,” Aya said, voice flat even for him. “You want us to stop a smuggling ring that’s distributing drugs meant to give its users temporary superpowers.”
“Not exactly,” Birman said, and Omi blinked. “We have another team handling the local distribution syndicate.”
Omi had a fairly solid idea, he thought, of how many operatives Kritiker was running, and how they were funded. He could think of several viable options to handle the mission on which Weiß was being debriefed, and he thought he knew who had put together the puzzle pieces before selecting Kritiker’s weapon in its war on crime or amorality or whatever windmill it was to which this Persia paid lip service.
“Well?” was all that he said, and Birman gave him a brief acknowledgment, the barest tightening of her lips, and Omi realized what he’d missed. “You said local,” he added. “You really want us to go overseas?”
“Wait, what?” Ken said.
“Kritiker has a vested interest in interrupting the manufacturing operation,” Birman said.
Omi barely swallowed the are you fucking kidding me that tried to slip out even before Birman explained that the mission this time was infiltration rather than assassination; Kritiker wanted Weiß to work its way into the corporation producing either the actual goods or – better yet – the research used to produce the goods, without getting caught.
“None of us have that sort of training,” Omi felt compelled to point out. “Or the language skills.”
“Not as individuals,” Manx said, smoothing out her skirt. “Two of you will work your way into the company, and the other two will provide backup. We’ve already intercepted information indicating a potential exchange from the distribution unit, and -”
“And you want to substitute us,” Omi interrupted. “What, no one else was ready to go on such short notice? Is that why you’re trying to send us?”
“Something like that,” Birman answered instead.
“I have exams,” Omi tried not to say out loud.
“Your flight leaves at noon tomorrow. I’m sorry.” Manx at least had the courtesy to hand Omi the disk containing the information they would need to build and maintain their covers, as Birman passed a thick file to Yohji. He hadn’t even seen where she’d been hiding the damn thing.
“We’ll leave it up to you to decide who it is that does the infiltration and who acts in the supportive capacity,” Manx said. “Include it in your pre-mission communication.”
“Manx, I’m an assassin, not a spy,” Yohji cut in, hefting the folder as though he were thinking of throwing it on the floor. “This isn’t what we do.”
“Fine.” Manx looked him up and down. “Abyssinian and Siberian will act as the infiltration unit. You will be met at the airport with papers confirming your identities. Balinese, Bombay, you’re both in the role of backup.”
“My English is better than both of theirs,” Omi said. “I should be one of the -”
“You look too young,” Manx said, before he could finish. “I know you’re nineteen, but you could still pass as a first-year high school student.”
“Ken doesn’t look much older,” Omi said, stubborn for reasons he couldn’t quite identify.
“Siberian at least looks as though he graduated high school, and being twenty-one leaves him with virtually no age-related restrictions in the United States.” Birman paused with her hand on the door. “We have faith in his ability to maintain his cover, along with Abyssinian.”
“Now hold on,” Yohji said, but Birman opened the door and habit forced Yohji’s mouth shut. Assignments weren’t discussed outside of a reasonably secure location, no matter that Ken hadn’t been paying attention to that particular detail as much lately.
“You’re running backup, as requested, Balinese,” Birman said, and vanished down the steps. Manx followed, both of them blending into the barely existent foot traffic with far greater efficiency than Omi thought entirely fair. Manx, at least, should have stood out more than she did, with crimson hair and a bright red suit, but the two of them had vanished before Omi could muster up a more coherent protest.
“That was weird, right,” Ken said. He stood at the now-closed door, staring at it without focusing on it. “Like, it was obviously weird, but it was weird.”
Omi sighed. “ We’re going to steal manufacturing methods, because they want to be able to counter Schwarz , ” he said. “The number of naturally occurring, um. Gifted individuals in the world is low, and whatever method Rosenkreuz used to find them isn’t going to get into Kritiker’s hands. They don’t want to wait and see if someone who just happens to fall into their network has some sort of gift.”
“Why,” Yohji said, not looking at anyone in particular, “don’t I think that’s going to go well for anyone.” He paused. “Because you know how the world works, Yohji, was the correct answer,” he added.
“Are they seriously sending us halfway around the world not to take out a target?” Ken asked.
It might, Omi thought, have been a measure of respect that none of his teammates questioned his conclusions. “That is exactly why they’re sending us halfway around the world,” he said. “Congratulations.”
The thought Omi refused to entertain was that if Kritiker was actively trying to prevent him from formally finishing high school, they were certainly on the right track. A week’s worth of exams was all that stood between him and an entire semester of credits, but Weiß had to be on a plane in fifteen hours. He wondered, briefly, how it would go if he refused the assignment, but even glancing briefly through Yohji’s paper file told him that his teammates’ chance of success would plummet if any one of them backed out.
“This is bullshit,” Ken said.
Omi couldn’t find it in himself to disagree.
Chapter 2: Infiltration
Updates on Saturdays.
“Two months,” Ken said, pacing the room. “We’ve been here for nearly two months!” The claws embedded in his leather half-gloves flashed in and out of their sheaths, the normally-soothing sound only serving to heighten his irritation. He still couldn’t make himself stop.
He should have been suspicious, when they’d landed in La Guardia and met their contact. The encounter had gone smoothly. Their papers had passed muster – but it was Kritiker, so of course the forgeries were top grade – and they’d managed to learn enough on the flight over to successfully impersonate the representatives of the distribution ring.
“Calm down.” Aya’s voice was cool and commanding, resonating from near the open window. His red hair fluttered in the freezing air leaking in, and the loose edges of his jacket moved in synch.
He has to be doing that on purpose , Ken thought irreverently. No one could stand in that much over-dramatic wind by accident. The thought faded away, forgotten in the next few seconds as Ken continued to pace. “Two months,” he said again. “We have nothing to show for the entire time we’ve been here. They – They’re going to have our asses for this.” He barely remembered not to name their organization out loud.
Aya glanced at him and pushed the window closed. “Kritiker knew this wasn’t going to be a quick assignment,” he said softly. “This isn’t reflecting poorly on us.”
“Sure,” Ken said. The claws on his gloves continued to slice at empty air, useless. The one thing that he’d gotten out of the entire debacle was improved language skills, even if he was nowhere near fluent. He could at least carry on a conversation, now, provided it stayed on relatively simple topics. The justification for his and Aya’s continued presence had been oversight of a mutually lucrative operation, with reports delivered regularly to the alleged distribution right.
Omi had verified that the communication was monitored, both their verbal reports and the more detailed electronic versions; the receiver was, of course, a Kritiker plant. The source of the payments for the shipments – sent four times, since Ken and Aya had arrived on American soil – was also Kritiker.
“I don’t see why,” Ken said, even though he’d made this argument and been shot down, “Kritiker can’t just keep paying them to make the compound. Or reverse-engineer it.”
“We don’t do business with criminals,” Aya said, apparently completely unaware of the hypocrisy of his words. They’d been doing business with criminals for two months, paying them for their goods.
“How about analyzing what they get, then,” Ken reiterated. He’d said this, too, and more than once; it couldn’t possibly be that hard, he reasoned, to figure out what was in the junk they were shipping overseas.
“The product is inconsistent,” Aya said, with the air of someone repeating known information. It was condescending, and Ken gritted his teeth. “Kritiker doesn’t have enough information to figure out if the inconsistency is part of how it’s synthesized or if it has to do with how it’s delivered.”
The compound was part of specific batches of perfume, applied topically and soaking through the skin. Ken frowned at Aya, for giving him back the same excuses Kritiker had been spouting at them for weeks now. “But,” he started, absently still triggering the release and withdrawal mechanism on his gloves.
Aya crossed the room and put a hand on his wrist. “Stop,” he said, and something in his face quelled Ken’s restlessness for a few moments. The claws stayed hidden, and Ken dropped his other hand.
“I got it, I got it,” he said. Aya squeezed his wrist in clear warning, mouth tight, and then let go. Ken stripped off the gloves and dropped them on the side table.
The two of them were staying in a building on what Ken suspected was the wrong side of town, clean enough, functional enough, but without much space. It had had mismatched furniture in place when they’d arrived, signing the month-to-month lease for what Ken privately felt was an obscene amount. Aya had quietly replaced some of the pieces and repaired others, and Ken dropped onto the once-rickety couch with a sigh. At least I don’t think it’s going to literally fall apart when I sit down any more.
“I miss the flower shop,” he said, not really meaning to let the words escape and almost surprised to find that it was true. He dropped his head onto the back of the couch. It was clean; he’d taken it upon himself to make sure that this one piece of their environment was welcoming and free of the filth that seeped into everything else they had to do for this assignment.
“You mean the hordes of pretty girls,” Aya said, in a rare moment of humor.
“I mean the flowers.” Ken sighed. “They just grow. They’re pretty and they just grow, they don’t cause trouble, and if you take care of them they’ll keep blooming for you.”
“Ah,” Aya said quietly, and Ken couldn’t tell what that meant. He rolled his head sideways until Aya was back in his field of vision.
“You look terrible,” he said, noticing for the first time since walking in the room that Aya’s face was drawn and pale. “You should get some sleep.”
“Yohji and Omi,” Aya started, and that was the reason they were both lurking in their sorry excuse for a living room instead of doing something productive or at least distracting. The weekly – technically irregular, but more or less weekly – in person briefing session was supposed to be that evening. Given that Omi didn’t feel he could adequately secure sensitive information transmitted in any other way, meeting in person carried the lowest risk. It still felt nerve-wracking to Ken.
“I know everything you do,” he reminded Aya. “I can handle them just fine. Besides, it’s not like we have that much to report.”
“You know what next week is,” Aya returned sharply.
“It’s not like we haven’t -” Ken started, and Aya’s mouth twisted. Ken flung up his hands and let them drop heavily back down to the couch.
“Fine,” he said. “Have it your way.”
The following week was supposed to be an inspection of the manufacturing facility; although the compound wasn’t made on in any of the centers openly owned by Roman Lux, Ken thought Omi had worked out that it was added to specific final products in the center in New Jersey. Their job was to try to figure out where it had come from.
According to the schedule Omi and Yohji had painstakingly pieced together – and parts of it were still unconfirmed – the compound was due to be shipped into the New Jersey facility the day of the inspection. Aya and Ken were to be shown the legitimate face of the business, and Omi and Yohji planned to use it as a distraction to track the shipment back to its source.
Aya, no matter what he’d said about the team still being within mission parameters, had been wound increasingly tightly. He hadn’t been sleeping. Ken didn’t know how to fix it; he didn’t even know what was wrong, other than the four of them were stuck in an unfamiliar environment and couldn’t go home and had been assigned a task well outside their usual skill set. Okay, I might know why he’s so goddamn cranky , Ken thought, but focusing on Aya made it easier to look past his own growing irritation.
“What about you?” Aya said.
“What about me,” Ken returned. He worked his hands out of the gloves and stretched his fingers.
“You’ve been distracted,” Aya said, and that was just the icing on the cake. Ken didn’t feel he was the one who hadn’t been maintaining a clear head over the last few weeks; he had a handle on his impatience, on his desire to just slam his claws home in the chest of whoever was responsible for the garbage being funneled into Japan and be done with it.
“No, I haven’t,” he said, just a beat too late.
“Our assignment isn’t to assassinate the people here,” Aya reminded him. Ken wasn’t sure whether or not Aya was trying to sound condescending, but he couldn’t think of any other way to interpret the tone.
“I know that,” he said, struggling to keep his own voice even, but before Aya could do more than flash him an annoyed look, a knock sounded on the door. “I’ll get it,” Ken said, pushing himself to his feet and brushing past Aya.
The spyhole in the center of the door wasn’t particularly high quality; sometimes Ken was surprised that it was there at all, given the general condition of the rest of the building. It was usually functional enough, but today it clearly showed him a cute blonde with heavy makeup and a short skirt standing in front of their apartment. She balanced most of her weight aggressively on one foot, hip thrust out, lips working to blow a bubble of neon yellow gum. It clashed horribly with her lipstick, Ken found himself noting, and he had no idea what she was doing standing in front of their door.
“What the hell?”
Aya looked up, all traces of his previous uncertainties smoothed into calm readiness. He reached behind the closet doorframe and held his katana – still sheathed – in a ready stance. “What is it?” he said softly.
Ken gestured at the spyhole.
“Just open the door,” came Yohji’s voice, and Ken nearly had a heart attack.
Aya yanked the door open and pulled the blonde inside with one smooth motion, kicking the door closed behind her. “Is there a reason for this?” he asked, still remarkably calm.
The blonde spit out her gum and walked into the kitchen as if it were her own, dumping it into the trash without asking where it was. “We’re not sure you haven’t been made,” she said in Omi’s voice.
Ken’s perception of her face shifted, and he could finally recognize his teammate under the layers of foundation. “Omi,” he said.
“You didn’t recognize me? I’m flattered.” Omi smiled brightly, and it was disorienting. “Yohji did it.”
“I’m a man of many talents,” Yohji said, stepping out of the bedroom doorway. “Many, many talents.”
“Do they include not breaking the ceiling?” Aya rejoined tartly, and Ken blinked.
“How did he even get in?”
Both Aya and Yohji threw him impatient looks, as though Ken was supposed to have worked it out on his own, and Aya adjusted the already closed blinds. “Why?” Aya asked, and Ken opened his mouth.
“A lot of little things,” Omi said, and his words from a few moments ago came rushing back. “The timing of the shipment and the facility tour seem really convenient, for one, but we don’t have any hard data to support our suspicion.”
“It’s more of a feeling,” Yohji said.
“We can’t stop on a feeling,” Aya said. “It’s Friday. The inspection is on Tuesday. If we can come up with anything concrete to give back to Kritiker, we’ll do it, but otherwise we have to continue the mission.”
Technically, that decision was Omi’s to make; Aya was field leader, but Omi made the tactical decisions for Weiß. Omi interpreted their instructions, and made them into something workable for the team. Aya was overstepping his bounds, and even Ken knew it.
“You’re not wrong,” Omi said. “That’s the planned course of action.”
“Right,” Aya said, after a pause.
“Is that why you showed up all,” Ken flapped a hand at Omi. “All disguised?”
“If the liaison is suspicious of the two of you, it stands to reason that any visitors you have would be investigated,” Omi said. “Which is why Yohji snuck in.”
“But you’ve just come to see us before,” Ken said.
“And we don’t know if you were being watched,” Omi said. “For all we know, us showing up so regularly is what tipped our hand.”
“That’s just fucking great.” Ken resisted the urge to bang his head on the wall.
“If – and it’s a big if – you’ve been made at all,” Yohji said, which wasn’t reassuring, even if Yohji was using the voice he normally reserved for their marks when he was trying to establish trust.
“Don’t patronize me,” Ken said, trying to keep the ire out of his voice. Going by the hurt that flashed across Yohji’s face, he failed; Yohji smoothed his expression before Ken could say anything else.
“Nothing has changed,” Aya cut in. “We’re still going in as planned.”
“Unarmed,” Omi put in, and Aya’s eyes narrowed.
“Whatever your cover identities would carry is fine,” Omi clarified. “But not your signature weapons. We can’t take the risk.”
Ken didn’t think Aya would have been able to hide the katana in any case, but he could have concealed his clawed gloves well enough. On the other hand, his cover identity had been enthusiastically learning how to handle a handgun in the much less controlled environment of the United States, and Ken just nodded in response to Omi’s statement.
“I – fine.” Aya looked very much as though he wanted to argue, but Ken could see him working Omi’s reasoning out and coming to the same conclusion. “Fine,” he said again.
“We’ll bring them, as backup, just in case,” Omi added. “Since Balinese and I will be in standard mission gear.”
“Yeah, okay.” Ken nodded.
The specifics of the inspection and the site remained to be covered, with as much detail as Omi and Yohji had been able to access and reproduce. Aya made a few notes, pulling from observations he’d made listening in to conversations their marks hadn’t thought he understood, and Ken had a few thoughts of his own. Contingency plans and worst-case scenarios followed, Omi touching on multiple possible scenarios in a way Ken hadn’t seen him do in months.
“We’re going to be fine,” he said. “Plans don’t last past first engagement anyway.”
It was the wrong thing to say. The corners of Omi’s mouth turned down, and Ken wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “I just want to make sure that if we’re walking into a trap, we can walk back out again,” he said. Ken appreciated the we part of the statement, given that he and Aya were technically the ones possibly about to walk into a trap, and he squeezed gently.
“Hey, we can handle it,” he said. “That’s what Weiß does.”
“I guess,” Omi said, and leaned his head against Ken briefly before straightening and extricating himself from Ken’s grasp. “No contact before the inspection,” he said. “Just in case. Standard signal in case of emergency.”
“Understood.” Aya didn’t bat an eye. Ken gave a hasty thumbs-up when Omi glanced in his direction.
“We’ve been here long enough,” Omi said, and frowned when Yohji beckoned him over.
“Verisimilitude,” Yohji explained. “So you look like you did what you came here to do.”
“There’s a better way to do that,” Omi returned. “Ken.”
“What?” Ken looked down, getting very little warning before Omi leaned up to kiss him. “Hey,” he said, when Omi finished, lipstick smeared enough that it looked like Omi had done more than he actually had. Omi disheveled his clothes and rubbed at his eyes, glancing at Yohji for approval.
“Fix your mouth a little,” Yohji said, and Omi swiped a finger carefully around his lips. “Better. Ken, let him out.”
“Aya let him in,” Ken said.
“And you’re the one with makeup transfer,” Yohji said, which was a fair point. Ken opened the door, sending Omi on his way, and closed it again.
“Ecstatic.” Yohji looked at him speculatively for a moment. “Let him try to plan for all the details,” he said. “You know it makes him feel better.”
“No one can control all the details,” Ken pointed out. “Omi knows that.”
“Hey, sometimes having a plan works.” Yohji ruffled Ken’s hair, and Ken ducked away, scowling. “Besides, if Omi feels like he has some control over the situation, he’s less nervous. Less nervous means things go better.”
“Whatever.” Yohji wasn’t wrong, if Ken thought about it; he just didn’t like to think about it. He felt much better if someone just pointed him at a target and told him to go.
“It’s getting to be that time.” Yohji nodded to Aya. “See you guys on Tuesday. Or not, haha.”
“Be safe,” Aya said, surprising Ken.
Yohji blinked, apparently surprised as well, and grinned before vanishing back into the bedroom. Ken could hear him going back out whatever way he’d come in, now that he was listening. The sounds faded after a few minutes, and Ken was left with a silent Aya.
“Tuesday,” he said. He should have felt more excited about the possible end in sight to their mission; if the shipment could be tracked back to its source, Weiß could raid it. Instead, he just felt tired, and restless. The gloves were on the couch where he’d left them, but Aya’s raised eyebrow when he moved toward them had him withdrawing his hand.
“Tuesday,” Aya agreed. He retrieved his katana and the tools he needed to sharpen it, sitting comfortably in a position Ken knew he could hold for hours. The sound of the whetstone drawing across the blade was almost comforting in its longtime familiarity. The sound was part of Weiß’ assignments, before and after missions, and Ken thought it served the same purpose for Aya that trying to account for all the details did for Omi.
Without a similar ritual, Ken stood next to the couch, hands carefully not reaching for his gloves, too restless to sleep despite how late it had gotten but not knowing what he wanted instead.
“Did you need something?” Aya asked pointedly.
“No.” Ken fled for the bathroom, taking a hot shower before crawling into bed. With Aya sitting across the room and his other teammates safely away, the bed felt cold and very lonely.
Chapter 3: Preparation
Lack of trust wasn’t the right phrase to describe his state of mind, Yohji thought. He trusted Omi. He’d put on a pair of outlandishly huge and highly tinted sunglasses and hidden his hair under an equally tasteless floppy hat to follow Omi without being noticed, either by Omi himself or by anyone he’d failed to see watching the two of them, because he was worried about Omi. Not, Yohji emphasized in the privacy of his own head, because he didn’t trust the kid.
Omi had made a solid effort at not looking like himself, hair temporarily dyed dark with cheap spray-on color, thick glasses, and clothes that looked like a sloppy college student of indeterminate gender. If Yohji hadn’t known, he would have had trouble identifying his teammate . Part of Yohji’s mind said it was paranoia, that their mark had no idea the two of them were involved or in the country or that they existed at all. Another part insisted that Takatori had always blindsided them and that they were only taking the sensible precautions.
Listening to the part of his brain likely to keep them alive was the right choice, Yohji felt, which was why he was lurking in a cafe next to a wall instead of a window with a briefcase and a series of documents in French spread around him. Not that Yohji’s French was particularly good, but it was less likely to be read by an overly curious passerby. Omi had come into the same cafe, the way he had for at least the past three mornings, and the fact that Omi had established a pattern was what worried Yohji.
Not, he reminded himself again, that he didn’t trust Omi.
The corner Yohji had chosen to lurk in wasn’t obviously visible from the door, and it wasn’t the corner Omi preferred. He sipped his coffee and pretended not to watch as Omi ordered at the counter and made his way to the seat he’d taken two out of the three mornings Yohji had seen him at this particular cafe. He set the second cup across the small table and wrapped his fingers around the wide mug holding whatever it was he’d ordered today. Yohji scribbled notes on one of his sheets of paper in red pen and waited to see if whoever the second cup was for actually showed up.
On the previous three visits, the cup had gone cold sitting across from Omi as he waited, reading a book in a language Yohji couldn’t identify. Today was different; Yohji wasn’t looking directly at the table when Omi’s partner slid into the seat Omi had saved for him, and he nearly choked on his coffee when he looked back to see Ken. Only quick reflexes saved Yohji from making a spectacle of himself, and when he had finished quietly not dying behind a potted plant, he swiped at watering eyes and looked again.
Oh, that’s Ken, all right. He’d hoped, for a moment, that he’d been mistaken. Hope is a lie flashed through his mind, and Yohji shook his head. He leaned forward, as if to see his papers more closely, looking over the top of his shades at his teammates breaking protocol.
The acoustics in the cafe might have been designed with clandestine meetings in mind; Yohji had found that, for the most part, it was hard to overhear any particular conversation in the peculiar echoing almost-hush of the space. Sound bounced off the brick and glass, distorted and wavering, and without being right next to someone, it was easy to hear nothing but susurrus. It helped, Yohji found, if he could read lips, but he didn’t want to be caught staring. It also helped that the object of Yohji’s current surveillance was the only conversation in Japanese.
“Aya would kill me,” Ken was saying.
Aya nothing. I’m going to kill him. Yohji scribbled something meaningless on the next sheet of paper and listened harder.
“I just wanted to see you before.” Omi buried his face in his cup, cheeks faintly pink. “Just, before,” he repeated, setting the cup down.
“Me, too.” Ken shifted in his seat in a way that might have meant he had reached for Omi under the table with one or both feet.
Yohji blinked and started re-evaluating Omi’s behavior over the past two months, trying to determine if Omi had spent more time with Ken than usual. He came to the conclusion that the two of them had gone off alone more often than he’d thought, and that neither he nor Aya had paid any attention. If the way Omi was looking at Ken now was any indication, they’d upset the team balance over the course of this assignment by getting involved with each other.
Be nice, Yohji , he told himself, but it was hard, when Ken was returning Omi’s soft sweet smile with one of his own. It wasn’t like Yohji hadn’t found his own forms of stress relief, stuck in a foreign country, but he had at least had the sense not to get emotionally attached to anyone this time. Why now ? He blinked, as the question occurred to him. Omi had known Ken for years, and while they’d slept together on and off during the majority of that time, it wasn’t as though feelings had been involved. Yohji wouldn’t have slept with either one of them, if he’d thought they were serious about each other, and he’d lost track of how many times he’d been briefly involved with any one of his teammates.
“What are you doing, Omi,” he murmured.
It didn’t occur to him to wonder the same thing about Ken; not when he’d had to stop Ken from running off to Australia with a woman he barely knew, not when Ken had so desperately tried to believe his former J-League teammate was innocent even when he was clearly the reason Ken had nearly died in a warehouse fire at the age of seventeen. Ken threw himself wholeheartedly into anything and everything; if Yohji had thought about it, he would only have been surprised that it had taken Ken this long to fall for someone, and maybe he would have been surprised that of all of them, Ken had picked Omi.
Neither of his teammates noticed Yohji, either, which was just sloppy. He sipped at his increasingly cold cup of coffee, until he couldn’t watch the two of them any more. Yohji carefully gathered his meaningless papers and drained the cup, standing energetically. His chair scraped back, screeching on the highly polished floor, and Omi winced slightly at the sound. Yohji saw him surreptitiously look over to identify the source of the noise, and wiggled his fingers in a sardonic wave as recognition spread across Omi’s face.
“What?” Ken started to say, but it didn’t take him much longer than it had taken Omi to put the pieces together. “Hi, Yohji,” he said.
Yohji ambled over to their table, pulling a chair with and sitting on it backwards. He made a show out of searching through his bag for two random pieces of paper and handed one to each of them. “What are you doing?” he asked quietly.
Ken frowned at him, shaking the paper slightly. It had liberal dashes of red ink, which was why Yohji had chosen it. “What do you mean, what are we doing,” he said, but there was an edge of resignation in his voice that told Yohji he already knew.
“Habits,” Omi murmured, eyes fixed on his own paper. Yohji reached forward and pointed to a spot of red ink.
“You’re distracted,” he said.
“Just because we didn’t notice you lurking in the corner?” Ken said. “Of course we knew you were there.”
Omi twitched, looking slightly guilty, and Yohji raised an eyebrow at him.
“You’re right,” he said. “I should have seen you come in.”
“I was here when you got here,” Yohji said, looking pained. “You’ve been here every morning this week. You’re establishing a pattern.”
“I’ve been here every morning for the past two months,” Omi hissed. “I’ve been cultivating an image.”
Yohji blinked; he’d been distracted, too, if he hadn’t noticed Omi sneaking off every morning for the entire duration of their undercover assignment. Or, technically, it was Ken and Aya’s undercover assignment, and he and Omi were just along for the ride. “The two of you have been meeting this whole time?”
“Not the whole time,” Omi said.
Ken shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s hard, being here,” he said. “Omi makes it better.” The expression on his face belied the almost cruelly casual nature of his words, and Omi – unbelievably – blushed slightly pink, the color dusting his nose and cheeks before he tried to hide it by burying his face in his mug.
“Just,” Yohji said, and he wanted to tell them to wait, until they all got back to Japan, and he wanted to tell them to take every moment as it came before it was too late, and he wanted to ask why they hadn’t trusted him – and maybe Aya – with the knowledge that the internal dynamics of Weiß had shifted, but none of the words would come. “Just be careful, okay?” he said.
From the look Omi gave him, Yohji thought Omi might have pulled everything he hadn’t said out of those few words. “We want to have a tomorrow,” Omi said. “We’ll be careful.”
“We’re Weiß first,” Yohji reminded him. He expected both of them to bristle at the reminder, but Ken just smiled, the warmth he’d been directing at Omi expanding to include Yohji as well.
“We’re not forgetting Weiß,” Ken said. “It’s just changing a little.” He put a hand on Yohji’s wrist, nearly breaking entirely with the hasty character sketch Yohji had tried to perform. “You’re still our friend. More than our friend. Aya, too.”
“Aya is going to murder all of us,” Yohji muttered. “You know how he gets.”
“Aya will understand,” Ken said, and if that wasn’t Ken’s former trademark optimism in a nutshell, Yohji didn’t know what was. He was entirely sure Ken was thoroughly mistaken about Aya’s reaction to two of them pairing off within their little group, but at the same time, Yohji didn’t want to crush the first naively hopeful sentiment Ken had expressed in months. He’d missed it. He hadn’t realized quite how much he’d missed it.
“Sure,” he muttered. “Aya will understand.” It was possible, that if Yohji got to Aya first and explained that Ken and Omi had been keeping a secret for months, Aya might be something other than deeply hurt and disappointed. For all that he presented – or tried to present – a cold exterior, Aya felt very strongly; he just didn’t know how to express it, until it all came boiling over and out, and then Aya would shove it back down until the next time he couldn’t contain his reactions. “Just let me talk to him first.”
“Are you okay?” Ken asked.
“I wish you would have told me,” Yohji said bluntly. “It feels like you don’t trust me.”
“We weren’t really sure there was anything there, at first,” Omi said. “And then it had been going on long enough that we didn’t know how to say it.”
“How long?” Yohji was fairly sure he knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Omi confirm it.
“New Year,” Omi said, on top of Ken’s simultaneous “The last cherry blossom festival.” The two of them blinked at each other, clearly confused. Omi opened his mouth and closed it again, and Ken rubbed at the back of his neck.
“I, uh,” he said, and words appeared to fail him altogether.
“Uh.” Yohji left them their red-marked papers and stood. “Definitely let me talk to Aya first.” He paused. “You’re both aware we need to maintain radio silence until Tuesday,” he said.
“Of course.” Omi’s body language shifted, subtly. He squeezed Ken’s hand. “Later, okay,” he murmured, and Ken nodded.
Omi left the cafe first, Yohji following, and took the route Yohji had planned back toward their safehouse. Yohji sighed and went the other way. Aya doesn’t need to know anything before Tuesday , he decided. Whatever needed to be sorted out could be taken care of after they’d concluded their assignment and gone back to Japan.
Chapter 4: Exposure
Monday dawned bright and clear, the even the brief moments after sunrise promising a renewal of the heat of early August after a cool and rainy night. Before walking out the door, Aya went back to touch the hilt of the katana now hidden with the rest of his mission gear, unable to keep going without the reassurance. Two months of working undercover felt dirty, indirect and unclean in a way that made Aya’s skin crawl. He recognized vaguely that the direct act of cutting down those Kritiker had deemed guilty was no less clean, but it felt as though it was.
Not being able to see a brighter world written in the blood of the guilty on the walls and floor drove a disconcerting frisson of doubt through his core every time he failed to pick up the katana and strap it on. Soon, Aya told himself, and made his fingers uncurl from around the hilt they had inexplicably grasped tightly. He put the katana back in its hiding place and stepped through the door.
The city was awash in light, blue sky tinged with gray, and it was still subtly wrong. Aya longed for the familiar skyline of Tokyo with a nearly physical ache, and even if Weiß had been out of the city for months before coming here, at least they had still been surrounded by the words and customs of home. What Aya now knew to be the superficial similarities of huge metropolitan areas all over the world still seemed as though they were directly mocking him and his homesickness.
“Deny these dark beasts their tomorrows,” he murmured under his breath, starting down the street. Except that no one was to be denied anything; if Weiß performed their jobs correctly, nothing would have changed after the warehouse inspection. He and his team would still be on American soil, waiting for a signal he was beginning to think would never come.
Kritiker has abandoned you, played through his head. Dumped you all across the ocean, and once they get what they want, they’re just going to leave you there. Problem solved.
“That’s not true,” he said under his breath, too quietly for even the people next to him on the packed and filthy subway to hear. “We’re going home again.”
The man next to him edged away slightly, giving Aya a dubious look, and Aya thought he had been perhaps a little less inaudible than he’d intended. He looked away, closing his mouth tightly. We’re going home, he thought stubbornly at the voice of doubt in his head. Weiß is too valuable a resource for Kritiker to abandon.
Other teams hadn’t done so well in the past, Aya couldn’t help but think. Other teams had gone rogue, true, but Kritiker wasn’t exactly known for taking care of its operatives. Weiß was unique in that it was the last team formed that had kept its original members. Kritiker sent its current roster into the field in ones and twos and threes and declared that it was improving its operatives’ flexibility by working with different partners and skill sets.
This started after Aya, he thought. After his sister had been kidnapped. She had been pulled out of the persistent vegetative state, it was true, but only after she had nearly been a vessel for what might or might not have been a literal demon in a ritual from hell. Weiß had faced off against the rival team that had sparked Kritiker’s current interest in this American drug they were chasing, and neither side had come away a clear winner.
Except that little Aya had been safe, and awake, and Aya could never let her see what he had become.
The jostling of the other passengers pulled Aya out of his thoughts in just enough time to get off the subway at his intended stop, but a familiar face was lounging against a street sign as soon as he made it onto the street level. One of the members of the organization he and Ken had been sent to observe, deliberately casual in a way that wasn’t casual at all, raised one hand and beckoned toward Aya.
“What’s up, Mac.” The American smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. None of them had put in much effort to pronounce Aya’s assumed name correctly – he didn’t think Makoto was particularly hard to pronounce, but what did he know – and it had taken less than an hour for them to slap the nickname on him. It stuck, firmly, despite his protests, and Aya had given up after the first week and a half.
“Good morning, Mr. Lindsey,” he said, because he was still capable of being polite.
Lindsey laughed uproariously, which he did every time Aya preserved the proper form of address. “Cute, Mac. You’re cute. Where’s Kaz?”
Ken’s assumed given name of Kazuya had fared no better. Aya shuddered to think what would have become of their alleged last names; if Lindsey’s group couldn’t pronounce the three syllables of Makoto, he didn’t want to hear what they would have done with either Sugawara or Kinoshita. Maybe it was a good thing they hadn’t tried.
“Yo. Mac.” Lindsey snapped his fingers in front of Aya’s face, and Aya glared at him. “Asked a question.”
“Mr. Kinoshita is speaking to the manager,” Aya said, which was the accepted method of reminding their contacts that they made regular reports to the group in Japan. Instructions were received at the beginning of the week, reports on progress at the end of the week, and Kritiker being the one to receive the calls instead of the criminal organization Kritiker had taken down made Aya feel slightly better about the whole arrangement.
“You were both,” said Lindsey, and the rest of what he said was just a little too fast and used a few too many words Aya didn’t know. “Got it?” Lindsey said.
“Please say that again,” Aya said.
“Christ.” Lindsey sighed, and spoke more slowly. “We’ll have to just take you, then. Boss wants to talk to you before tomorrow.”
“Why?” Aya asked. He never would have asked the question in Japan, not like this. Lack of language skills – even if he spoke and understood more than they thought he did – let him get away with a little more.
“Inspection’s a big deal.” Lindsey grinned. “You’re seeing the heart of our operation.”
“I thought the heart was manufacturing,” Aya said, only stumbling slightly over the longer word.
“Ha!” Lindsey clapped him on the shoulder. “Anyone can manufacture. Distribution’s how you really get shit going.”
Aya filed the statement away, although he was privately sure Lindsey was using hyperbole and exaggeration; the process of creating the drug was why his team had spent two months in New York. “Shall we?” he said, maintaining courtesy.
“Fuck, sure. After you.” Despite his words, Lindsey led the way.
Misgivings started to seep into Aya, pooling in his gut. He hesitated behind Lindsey, reluctant to follow the man blindly despite having worked more or less closely with him over the past two months. The vague suspicion that he and Ken had been made seemed more significant, now, with a deviation in routine. The inspection is a deviation in the routine, he told himself, but he was sure something else was wrong.
A mark had once told Aya, early on, before he’d met the rest of Weiß, when Kritiker thought he might specialize in undercover work, that he had the instincts of an assassin. I’ve seen the way you assess a space before entering it, Van, the mark had said. I know a set of good instincts when I see one. I want you in charge of my safety, despite your lack of seniority. Aya had stabbed him in the back. The mark had been mistaken on a number of counts – he’d been running a snuff porn ring, for one – but he hadn’t been wrong about Aya. Kritiker had pulled Aya out of undercover shortly after and introduced him to Weiß.
“We should wait for Mr. Kinoshita,” Aya said. “Due to the gravity of the situation.” The phrase wasn’t entirely familiar, but he’d heard it used a few times, and he was fairly sure it indicated significance. Lindsey’s eyes narrowed, though, before he smoothed his face.
“We’ll send Nelson to swing by and pick him up,” he said.
Aya closed his eyes briefly; they’d failed, then, and he could only hope that Omi and Yohji had managed to determine the location of the distribution center. With that, they could track vehicles returning to manufacturing. He wished for his katana and discarded the emotion. It wouldn’t help him. He looked at Lindsey. “I should go with Nelson,” he said. “Or Mr. Kinoshita will think something is wrong.”
Lindsey laughed again. “Yeah, okay,” he said. The mobile phone he kept in his pocket was blocky, hideous in its utilitarian design, but it made his job so much easier and Aya’s task of staying alive that much more difficult. The phone clicked closed again and Lindsay started back towards the subway. “We’ll meet him by your place,” he said.
The subway ride was tense, Aya trying to put on a calm face. He had no idea if either Yohji or Omi were actively watching him, but they had no reason to be. There was no one to whom to send a signal, and no chance to notify either of his teammates that the mission had suddenly gone sideways, but if Aya could get into their apartment, he could pick up a tracker. Omi and Yohji would be able to find it, if he activated it. He checked his watch; Ken should have finished his report to Kritiker but – if he were continuing true to form – would still be close enough to their building.
Another man was standing outside the door as they approached, hand raised as if to knock. Aya recognized him as the one Lindsey had instructed to collect Ken. “Mr. Nelson,” he said loudly, and the man startled slightly.
“Lindsey,” he said. “Mac. Takes all three of us to get Kaz or what?”
“Mac was nervous,” Lindsey said, and Nelson smirked.
Aya’s skin crawled. “I’ll unlock the door,” he said, and just before he inserted the key into the lock, he deliberately dropped his keys. If Ken was in the apartment, he would know they were coming. “Sorry.”
The door opened smoothly, the short hallway dog-legging into the tiny kitchen clean and empty. Aya made as if to step inside, but Nelson pushed him back and went first, vanishing around the corner to the left. Aya followed, his view of the living room blocked by Nelson’s broad back. “He ain’t here,” Nelson said.
“Check the bathroom.” Lindsey’s voice was curt.
Nelson, already standing next to the open bathroom door, glanced inside. “Nothing,” he said, and walked further into the living room. Ken had left all the blinds closed, giving the corner room a peculiarly shadowed appearance despite the sunlight filtering through.
“Bedroom?” Lindsey asked, impatient now.
The bedroom was less a bedroom and more an alcove off the side of the living room, necessitating yet another left turn. It was blocked out by the door to the walk-in closet sharing a wall with the bathroom, leaving the public and semi-public space of the apartment forming a broad U-shape. Aya followed Nelson toward the bedroom alcove as well. The two futons he and Ken slept on were neatly rolled and stacked against the wall, but Ken was nowhere to be seen.
“No,” Nelson said. “I told you, he ain’t here.”
Aya did not look at the closet door. “I need my boots,” he said. His mission boots had a tracker hidden in one heel.
“No, you don’t,” Lindsey said. “Check the closet.”
Aya’s heart sank. With the exception of his relatively innocuous-appearing boots, their mission gear was carefully hidden above the heating unit cleverly tucked away in the closet and wouldn’t be seen unless the closet were actively searched, but he didn’t think it mattered at this point. “These aren’t the right shoes for walking,” he said, trying one more time.
“Boots are made for walking,” Lindsey told him, and Nelson laughed.
Aya suspected he was missing something, not that he felt it mattered. “Right,” he said.
“Grab them, then,” Lindsey said. “He in the closet?”
Nelson laughed again and Aya saw him lean in the door and look around. “Nope,” he said, backing out. “Kaz ain’t in the closet.”
“Neither of them are in the closet,” Lindsey said, and Nelson laughed a second time. It had a cruel sound to it, and Aya thought again that he’d missed something else. “So where’s Kaz?” Lindsey added.
“Don’t know,” Aya said. “No mobile phone.” There was a scuff on the door frame that hadn’t been there when he’d left that morning, just barely visible. If Aya hadn’t been looking, he wouldn’t have seen it. Given the slightly dingy nature of the apartment overall, he didn’t think either Nelson or Lindsey had noticed. Aya thought it meant Ken was hiding in the closet ceiling, balanced literally over Nelson’s head. It was one of Ken’s specialties, an athletic feat none of the rest of them could pull off for very long.
“We’ll come back for him,” Lindsey said, and Aya hoped that if Ken was actually in the ceiling, he had the sense to escape the building before someone arrived to watch it. Worst-case scenario, Aya thought, was Lindsey’s partner waiting inside the apartment for Ken to return, and Lindsey’s next words made his heart sink again. “Nelson, wait here.”
“You got it,” Nelson said easily, dropping heavily onto the couch. He couldn’t see the door from there, Aya noted; the bathroom wall was in the way. Aya gravitated toward the dog-leg corner, where he and Ken left their shoes, like civilized people. Seeing Nelson’s dusty footwear on their indoor floor was painful, even if it was a minor infraction compared to Nelson’s incipient attempt to murder Ken. “See you soon, boss.”
“Don’t call me that,” Lindsey said. “It’s bad luck.”
“After today, you’re moving up,” Nelson said.
“I -” Lindsey started, and then glanced over at Aya watching both of them as he switched his shoes out for the mission boots. The tracker in the heel wasn’t meant for Aya; it was supposed to be attached to a mark, and there was no way he could activate it inconspicuously. “Not now,” he said. “Mac. Let’s go.”
Aya glanced around the apartment one more time, and followed Lindsey back out the door.
The sun seemed oppressive, rather than illuminating, as Aya made his way back toward the subway for a second time. Weiß operated in the shadows, and the brightness left him exposed. The harshness of light edged in darkness was antithetical to both his training and his experience. Aya felt his heart beating in the back of his throat and refused to acknowledge the sensation as panic.
You know what to do, he told himself, but he had none of his standard weapons. The long knife in one boot and the shorter one up the opposite sleeve would do him no good, if the Americans had guns. He had neither the advantage of surprise or terrain; all he had was himself. You are the weapon, he repeated carefully. Wherever Lindsey was taking him, he would survive.
The pressure around Aya’s throat opened just enough to let him breathe a little more easily. Lindsey was pretending not to watch him, and Aya ignored him. Lindsey led him through an unfamiliar station onto another subway line, and then a third, and Aya kept track of where they’d gone. He had no opportunity to activate the tracker; even the request to use the bathroom – real enough – led to Nelson standing in Aya’s field of vision as he used a urinal instead of the relative privacy of a stall.
The last transfer was a train, rather than a subway, Aya discovered, heading out of the city toward New Jersey. If Lindsey really intended to take him to the distribution center, Aya would laugh at his hubris. Assuming that Aya hadn’t succumbed to rampant paranoia, that the organization really had figured out they weren’t who they said they were, bringing Aya to the very spot Weiß was trying to locate was an amateur mistake at best and staggering overconfidence at worst.
“We’re here,” Lindsey said, breaking into Aya’s thoughts.
The sky seemed dimmer, grayed out despite the sunlight, and Aya shaded his eyes as he followed. No green was visible, not even in cracks in the sidewalk, and rust stained the concrete blocks of half of the surfaces he could see. “Where’s here?” he asked.
“Get in the car.” Lindsey gestured to a nondescript vehicle idling on the street, remarkable only for the slightly tinted windows in the back.
“I want to know where I’m going first,” Aya said.
“God damn it,” Lindsey said, and the trunk swung open. Lindsey swung a clumsy fist at Aya’s midsection, and Aya rolled with the hit, folding over Lindsey’s arm and pushing the air out of his lungs. Lindsey half-dragged him to the trunk and shoved him in, giving him a sharp blow to the temple before he slammed the trunk closed. Aya waited for the fuzzy feeling to go away, holding himself still and listening for the car doors. The heat inside the trunk already felt oppressive.
The vehicle pulled into the street, and Aya carefully reached toward the heel of the correct boot. The noise of the engine and the pavement unspooling under the tires would mask the sounds of his shifting around, if he was careful. The hidden compartment popped open, and the tracker fell into his hand. Aya carefully felt around its edges; the trackers had been designed to be operated by touch as well as sight, and the activation switch would be sharply defined. Once depressed, the tracker would feel smooth.
Aya couldn’t find the activation switch, and the panic threatened to overwhelm him for a brief second before his questing fingers felt the tell-tale groove meant to flip the switch back to inactive. What? Realization followed – Ken must have activated the tracker in his boots while they’d been outside the door, before making himself scarce. Aya felt a sudden rush of warmth toward his teammate and put the tracker back into his boot. The compartment latched closed as the car slowed and came to a stop.
Only a few seconds passed before the car started up again, and Aya let out the breath he’d been holding. He hadn’t been able to remember the turns the car had been making, but if Ken had turned the tracker on, Omi would be able to find him. Time stretched oddly, measured in the drops of sweat snaking across his skin, and Aya couldn’t tell if they’d been driving hours or only a few minutes when the car stopped and the engine shut off. His knees ached and his hands and feet felt numb, making the argument for hours, and the sun was low in the sky when Lindsey yanked the trunk open. Even in the relative dimness of late afternoon, the sudden light blinded Aya, and all he could do was squint. The breeze from outside felt ice-cold, and he shivered.
“If you were more cooperative, this shit wouldn’t happen,” Lindsey said. “Don’t glare at me like that.”
Aya glared harder, keeping his eyes narrow, and let Lindsey physically pull him out of the trunk. The driver wasn’t someone Aya recognized, but he reached forward to steady Aya as pins and needles flooded his numb feet and he staggered. Nausea welled up, and Aya pushed it back down. “Easy there,” the driver said.
Fuck you, Aya was tempted to say, but he kept his mouth shut. The car was parked outside a sprawling facility, old brick and corrugated sheet metal, camouflaged in the middle of other equally decrepit buildings. Half of the signs were missing letters, and most of the rest had been defaced with graffiti that even Aya recognized as obscene. No one was in sight on the run-down street, and at least one streetlight was leaning drunkenly to the side. “Where are we?” he asked.
“Welcome to distribution,” Lindsey said, and led Aya inside.
Chapter 5: Mission
The vent in the ceiling was how Yohji had gotten in and out of their apartment. Ken hadn’t noticed it, before he’d braced himself in the corner to avoid being seen, but it was bigger than it should have been. If Ken was right, the vent would get him into the attic. The problem was the man waiting on their couch for him to get home – not that Ken couldn’t handle a single opponent, but it was going to get messy, and Ken had grown to like the couch. It didn’t deserve someone spilling bodily fluids on it.
Shifting his weight slightly, Ken thought for a moment before lowering himself carefully to the floor. The closet door was halfway closed, and its hinges were quiet. He pushed it the rest of the way shut, easing the latch closed, and then set about pulling his and Aya’s gear out from above the water heater. The living room was quiet, no footsteps, and he listened carefully as he pushed both bundles into the vent and then pulled himself into the ceiling.
As he’d expected, the vent got him into the attic, and Ken rolled his eyes. Aya had insisted that the top-floor apartment had its benefits, and Ken had complained about the multiple sets of stairs just to be obnoxious. Aya had been right, though; Ken moved away from the ceiling over their space and pulled on his mission gear. Any of his teammates would have been more conspicuous, not less, once they were properly dressed, but Ken figured he’d fit right in.
Aya’s katana was the hardest part of his gear to disguise, but Ken eventually wrapped everything else around it. He found the trapdoor leading out of the attic and a window facing the taller building behind them, and chose the window. What must have been Yohji’s route downward was hidden by the blank brick wall, and Ken shook his head. Leave it to Yohji to dramatically climb up and down a wall like Spider-Man, instead of using a perfectly good trap door meant to access the attic.
By the time Ken got to the street, Aya and his contact were long gone; Ken pressed his lips together and hoped that Aya had put on his mission boots. He’d activated the tracker, when he’d seen Aya walking up the street with their contact in a gross breach of the usual routine, and left the boots conspicuously in the center of the entrance before hiding in the ceiling. If Ken were to be honest with himself, it had been less that Aya had come home at the wrong time, and more that he’d looked nervous; if Ken hadn’t known him so well, he wouldn’t have been able to see it, but after three years as a team, Aya might as well have been screaming in the streets.
Ken glanced up and down the sidewalk and slid into the crowd. Omi would be able to pinpoint the location of the tracker, and that would lead them to Aya. Or right back to their apartment, which Ken fervently hoped would not be the case. The trip to the back-up meeting location seemed much longer than it had when they’d chosen the spot, and Ken swallowed the acid back down his throat more than once. He stepped into the pay phone on the corner, dropping the correct coins into it and dialing the number.
Yohji picked up the phone. “Hello?” He sounded bored, Ken was relieved to note; nothing odd had happened to the other half of the team, then.
“Abby, darling,” Ken said.
“I think you have the wrong number.” Yohji’s boredom vanished under a layer of irritation at the code word.
“This isn’t Abby Kitt’s number? We’re supposed to be on a date and she’s late and – sorry.” The sentence was awkward enough in Japanese and even worse in English, and Ken could hear his accent getting worse as he kept talking.
“You have the wrong number,” Yohji said flatly. “But good luck.”
“Thanks,” Ken said, and hung up. He glanced up and down the street again, but saw no one he recognized. It was possible that he hadn’t been followed, and wasn’t under surveillance. He slipped carefully into the crowd again, meandering until he reached the half-blind corner in a narrow alley, and then ducked into it to wait.
If the trip out to the meeting place had felt long, the wait until Omi showed up felt like an eternity. His fluffy blonde hair materialized out of nowhere, and Ken yanked him into a hug before he thought about what he was doing.
“Ken, what the hell,” Omi said, making no attempt to escape. He hugged back, tentatively, and Ken made himself let go.
“Aya,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
“Yohji’s getting a car,” Omi said. “Tell me where we’re going.”
“We have to follow the tracker,” Ken said, and told Omi what little he knew. Omi frowned, adjusting his backpack, and asked questions for which Ken had no answer.
“Right,” Omi said finally, and glanced out toward the street. A car paused, and Omi tugged Ken toward it. Yohji was visible in the driver’s seat, lit cigarette dangling carelessly between two fingers, and Omi pointed Ken toward the back before crawling in to sit next to Yohji. “Put that out,” he said.
“Helps our cover,” Yohji told him, but he lazily flicked the cigarette away before pulling back into traffic. The car had been stopped less then fifteen seconds, all told, and Ken hadn’t quite pulled the door shut before it started moving. He heard the latch click and shoved Aya’s gear out of the way. “Where we going?”
“I need a minute.” Omi had the laptop open already, data scrolling across the screen. Ken frowned at it for a moment before noticing the cord snaking out the back, attached to the secondary receiver. Omi was hooked into the satellite system, then, a neat little device he hadn’t had the chance to test before leaving Japan.
“Well?” Yohji said, looking at Ken in the rearview mirror. Ken explained a second time; Yohji asked fewer questions.
“I’ve got it,” Omi said, and Ken leaned forward to see the screen.
“Hey, sit back. At least pretend you’re wearing a seatbelt.” Yohji glared, this time, and Ken sulked backwards.
“Where?” Ken asked.
“On a train, probably.” What Ken could see of the screen changed, as Omi pulled up the image of a map and started giving Yohji directions.
Ken pulled his gloves over his hands, feeling the comforting weight, and flexed his fingers. The release mechanism for the claws rested against his palms, and he touched it carefully. “Should I have killed him?” he asked.
“It would have tipped our hand,” Omi said absently. “More quickly than you not going back there.”
It wasn’t quite the answer Ken had been looking for. He stared out the window at the city crawling by, and tried to resist the urge to fidget in impatience.
“The tracker is moving steadily,” Omi said. “We’ll get there.”
There was very little reason for their contacts to be transporting a corpse, Omi did not say, but Ken wondered if they would have disposed of Aya’s body on a train, if they’d killed him.
“They switched trains,” Omi said, interrupting Ken’s thoughts. “Yohji, take the next left.”
Ken tried to sit back and breathe, tasting the remnants of Yohji’s cigarette overlying stale and older smoke, and trying not to think of all the possible worst-case scenarios. This is why I don’t do the planning part, he thought. Just point me at something and I’ll kill it, but this is fucking terrible.
“The tracker’s stopped moving,” Omi announced finally, and Ken jerked fully awake. He’d fallen into a half-hypnotic state, listening to the road rush by under the tires and feeling the sweat trickle down his back in the oppressive August heat. “Won’t be long now. Probably.”
Omi’s definition of not long didn’t match Ken’s; it was close to an hour before Yohji parked the car on a run-down street. It matched the battered car, pot-holes and cracks in the pavement and more than one boarded-up window visible. There were no people. Yohji cut the engine, and the silence seemed to press against Ken’s eardrums like hot cloth. He swallowed, trying to dislodge the feeling, but it didn’t help. He slid forward in the seat, until he could see Omi’s screen, faint in the afternoon sunlight.
“He’s in here,” Omi said, pointing at a spot on the map. “But we need to know more before we can go in.”
“Surveillance and espionage,” Yohji muttered. “My favorite.”
Ken didn’t think he was trying to joke. He took a deep breath and stared at Omi’s map. “What, exactly do you want us to do?”
“Ken, stay in the car,” Omi said. “Yohji, scout the perimeter.”
“Hey,” Ken said indignantly. “I can scout.”
“You’re going to watch the street,” Omi said. “Driver’s seat, please.”
Yohji slid out of the car, nodding to Ken. “See you back in a few,” he said, radio settled into his ear and hidden by his hair. He ambled down the street, looking as though he belonged there for all that he was the only person visible and should have been conspicuous. Ken scrambled into the driver’s seat, wiping his palms on his jeans and telling himself he wasn’t shaking in anticipation.
The street was empty again, Yohji having vanished while Ken wasn’t paying attention. Ken leaned his arm on the open window, looking up and down the late afternoon sunlight and trying not to seem as if he was watching his surroundings. It had been so long since they’d done any sort of covert surveillance that he felt as though he’d forgotten what he was doing.
“I’m in,” Omi said, and Ken flinched.
“And?” he said, but Omi shushed him. Ken peered over his shoulder, but he wasn’t sure what Omi was doing; Omi kept switching windows and typing strings of command codes, and while Ken knew his way around a computer in a pinch, he couldn’t quite follow what Omi was doing here.
“Your cover was definitely blown,” Omi said, almost absently. “I’ve got schematics for the building, here. See?”
“Lucky,” Ken said.
“Yes and no.” Omi took a deep breath. “The schematics are publicly available.” He laughed a little. “It’s part of a push toward pre-fabricated industrial buildings that failed.” He paused. “There might be modifications not in the schematics, which you should be prepared for. You too, Yohji,” he added.
“Sure,” Yobji said, and Ken had entirely forgotten about the radio in his ear. “I’ve completed the circuit of the exterior, let me come back and look over what you have, and I’ll let you know if there are any obvious discrepancies.”
Yohji checking Omi’s maps meant Ken was relegated to the back seat again, and he scooted forward to peer over the seat back. Yohji looked carefully and then shook his head. “Nothing major that I could see,” he said. “Looking for minor changes would take time I don’t think we have.”
“You’re right about that.” Omi pointed to a spot on the map. “Aya’s here.”
Ken let the data settle into his mind, branching out to create multiple routes to reach Aya and then get back out again. “So we go in and get him out?” he said.
“It’s a little more complicated.” Omi glanced sideways at Yohji. “I don’t know if you could see this from the outside, but this is the manufacturing center.”
“This was supposed to be distribution,” Ken interrupted. “We were supposed to follow transportation back to manufacturing.”
“I couldn’t really tell from outside,” Yohji said. “The windows aren’t translucent.”
Standard, Ken remembered, for an industrial building.
“I can’t get into anything except the surveillance feed,” Omi continued. “And the only reason I could tap into those is because someone wants to be able to monitor the footage remotely. I know there’s either a closed network or machines that aren’t hooked into any network because I can see them.” He pulled up several windows in quick succession. “None of these are reachable. One or all of them might have the information we’re looking for.”
“We’re trying to get Aya,” Ken said. “Not the manufacturing data.”
“This is our only chance to actually complete the original mission,” Omi said, and Ken slammed a fist sideways into the door.
Omi was right, that was the trouble; the mission was paramount, even if they got damaged in the process. Kritiker’s agents were already dead, so to speak, with nowhere else to go, or they wouldn’t be part of Kritiker. Mission over agents, and Ken had never hated it more than this particular moment.
“I’m looping some of the feeds,” Omi said. “So that it won’t look like we’re breaking in from the outside. Hopefully it won’t be noticed until we’re in and out.”
“You want me and Ken to go after Aya, then?” Yohji asked.
“Yes.” Omi glanced up and down the street. “Aya’s here,” he said again, and Ken nodded impatiently. “Yohji, I want you to try for the machine here. Copy everything over, don’t worry about searching through it.”
Yohji accepted the SuperDisk drive and floppy disk Omi handed him, making a face at them. Ken couldn’t blame him; in his experience, they’d always been more trouble than they were worth, no matter that they were quicker at reading and writing data than anything else on the market. “What if they’re using Macintoshes?” Ken asked, and Yohji looked up, as if that hadn’t occurred to him.
“They aren’t,” Omi said. “I can see them on the feeds. You’re not going to have to worry about compatibility.”
Yohji tucked the drive into his jacket. “Right.”
“Before you get to Aya,” Omi said.
“I know how to do my job, Omi,” Yohji said, without heat to the words. His even tone made him sound harsher.
“Ken,” Omi said, as if Yohji had said nothing, “you’re going to run interference, while Yohji and I copy the drives. I want you to be a distraction.”
“They wanted me there anyway,” Ken said. “I could just walk up to the front door and knock.”
Omi blinked. “You’re not wrong about that,” he said. “It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but it’ll do.”
Ken grinned at him. It wasn’t as though there was much about his mission clothing that was going to give him away, as long as the claws stayed safely tucked into his gloves. “I can buy you some time,” he said. “Just let me know when it’s go time.”
“As long as we don’t have to rescue both of you,” Omi said.
“I’m more worried about you.” Ken twisted his hands together to stop himself from reaching out. Omi was the most vulnerable one, in this scenario; Ken’s distraction would last until Yohji finished what he was doing, at the machine closest to where Aya was being held, and then he and Ken would pull Aya out of the facility. Omi was the one who was going to have to visit at least two more locations, without backup, and extract himself.
“Worry about Aya,” Omi said after a too-long pause, turning to look at Ken with an unreadable expression. Ken started to answer, but whatever words were on the tip of his tongue were lost in Omi’s gaze.
“Okay,” Yohji said, loud and bright, and Ken jumped. “We ready to go?”
“Meet back here,” Omi said.
“Right.” Ken pulled at the sweater knotted around his waist. “Tell me when you want me to start.”
Omi leaned over the seat back and tugged Ken into a quick kiss. “For luck,” he said, voice soft.
“Luck,” Ken agreed, and then Yohji and Omi were both gone. “Waiting, waiting, waiting,” he muttered, and climbed out of the car. He stretched, wriggling his toes in his boots, feeling the blood flowing back into his extremities, and his joints unstiffen. Not that he’d been particularly cramped, but he preferred to be moving, even in the muggy heat.
“You ready?” Ken heard in his ear.
“Ready,” he said. “I have to take off the radio, they’ll notice it.”
“I know.” Omi hesitated, channel still open. “Good luck,” he said finally.
“You too,” Ken said, and turned off the earpiece before he could say anything else. He stuffed it into his inner jacket pocket, bouncing a couple of times on the balls of his feet before starting down the road.
The front door of the facility was as nondescript as the rest of it, looking sleepy and abandoned. Or maybe it was more tense, than sleepy, Ken thought as he approached. He could see hints of movement at a few windows, shadows behind the opaque glass, a disorienting counterpoint to the buzz of cicadas echoing down the quiet street.
The loading docks were on the other side of the building, and all Ken could see of them was the side street vanishing behind the brick. He knew where they were, Omi’s map in his head, and he felt it rearrange itself slightly as he looked at the building, reconciling the diagram with the reality. Yohji was right about no major changes, he thought, and then he was in front of the building.
The front door had been impressive once, and in the last of the sunlight, the arched roof over it still was. The paint was flaking, and Ken could see where there had once been a series of letters that had long since been removed to leave patches of paler stone and bleeding rust. The double door itself had a newer lock, incongruous among the faded decrepitude of the rest of the building. Ken walked up to the door and tugged on it.
A dull thunk sounded, as the deadbolt fetched up against the lock. Ken pounded on the door. “Hey!” he shouted. Only a few moments passed before Ken heard a scuffling noise and the door swung open. The man behind it had a name he could never quite remember and a nickname that wasn’t much easier to recall, and towered easily 15 centimeters over Ken. With a cocky smirk, Ken looked up at him. “Yo,” he said.
“Kaz?” The man looked over his shoulder. “The Chief was looking for you.”
No one ever used proper titles for anything in the United States, Ken reflected, it was all ridiculous affectations based on the personality of the individual in question or just their name, which garnered no useful information at all. “Yeah, that’s why I’m here,” he said.
“Where’s Nelson?” The man leaned outward and frowned. His nickname suddenly fell into Ken’s head.
“Haven’t seen him, Tiny.” The smirk transitioned into Ken’s attempt at a winning smile. “I just got a message.”
“Right.” Tiny stepped back, and Ken sauntered through the door. The skin between his shoulderblades prickled, and he resisted the urge to look around. He could see no movement in his peripheral vision. “Great place, huh?” Tiny said, and Ken took it as tacit encouragement to inspect the space.
The front entrance opened into a foyer surrounded by office space, leading eventually into the huge space in the rear of the building that had once been meant for manufacturing objects other than illicit drugs. Down one exterior wall was another row of smaller workrooms, and the second floor overhung the first, filled with storage and rooms that Ken hadn’t bothered to learn the purpose of. It opened up onto the high-ceilinged manufacturing space, its main feature a balcony overlooking the room. Aya was being held in the center of the maze that was the third floor, a warren of corridors and tiny rooms.
Ken glanced around the foyer, taking in the spaces where someone might lie in wait to hide. Omi needed to reach one room on the first floor and two on the second; Yohji needed access to one room on the third, before he and Ken went for Aya. “It’s nice,” he said. “Little drafty.”
If there had ever been air conditioning in the building, it was broken now. The heat would have been stifling, if it hadn’t been considerably drier inside than outside, and Ken could hear the hum of machinery. If they can dehumidify it, he thought, they should be able to bring the temperature down; if they were going to waste energy one the one anyway, they might as well be comfortable. Tiny grinned like a shark at Ken’s laconic assessment and moved to put a hand on the small of his back.
Ken slipped out of the way, trying to look as though he were doing no such thing and wandered over to the side of the foyer. “How old is this place, anyway?” he asked.
“Built in the 50s,” Tiny said. “When we were a real manufacturing hub.”
Ken deduced that Tiny was speaking in the national sense with the word we. “Not much here now, though,” he said.
“Like Japan is any better.” Tiny sneered at him, and Ken smiled blandly back, as though he’d entirely missed the implication of his own words. Tiny’s sneer faded into an uncertain frown at that, and he reached for a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt. “Chief?”
The walkie-talkie crackled slightly, spitting out static before it resolved into a recognizable voice. “I told you not to -” it started.
“Kaz is here,” Tiny said into one of the gaps. “Nelson’s not with him, though.”
“Keep him there. I’m sending someone down.” Even from within the same building, the transmission was still badly fuzzed with static, and Ken started wandering toward the back of the foyer.
“Yo, Kaz.” Tiny chased after him, and Ken opened one of the back doors before Tiny caught up. “Chief wants to see you,” he said again.
“I know,” Ken said. “What else is here?” He peered inside the room; he thought he remembered this as a dead-end space, with no access to the rest of the building. It was too dark to see much, with no outside windows.
“You’ll have to ask the Chief,” Tiny said, and Ken shrugged and closed the door. He managed to reach the corridors leading to the east stairwell – the west stairwell, if he remembered correctly, was a little farther back on its side of the building – and catch a glimpse of it before Tiny yanked him roughly back.
“What the hell?” Ken said. He’d learned that phrase early on, and by now he was good at getting its inflections right.
“Sorry,” Tiny said, not sounding sorry at all. “You’ll have to talk to the Chief.”
The manufacturing operation that Ken and Aya had spent two months infiltrating had more members than Kritiker had originally guessed, headed up by the man styling himself the Chief. Ken wasn’t sure whether he had ties to other organizations or not, but the operation in New York was more or less efficiently run. It was centralized, which Ken privately felt was a weakness on their part and an advantage for Weiß, if Kritiker ever gave them the go-ahead to do anything actually useful. He barely stopped himself from activating the claws on his gloves.
“Kaz,” Tiny said, and Ken turned around. “What’s with the goggles?”
Ken shrugged, making a face as though he didn’t understand the question, and paced over to the front door again. He looked at the frosted glass bricks on either side of it, and tapped at them carefully. The hidden weight of his gloves, applied at the right spot, shattered one of the bricks. An alarm went off, loud and shrill, and Ken flinched back as if surprised. “I’m so sorry,” he said, widening his eyes to look at Tiny.
“What the fuck,” Tiny shouted over the noise, and Ken heard him on the walkie-talkie explaining that Ken had accidentally broken part of the front door in between poking at a keypad on the wall. “I know,” Ken heard Tiny say, and the alarm went abruptly silent.
“I’m so sorry,” Ken said again. “I just touched it.”
“Yeah,” Tiny said. “Sure.” The corners of his mouth turned down and he glanced over at the keypad. It blinked green now, instead of red. “Someone’ll come fix it.”
Ken did not smile; the alarms were entirely off, then, which would make it a little easier for Yohji and Omi. The communicator tucked against his skin was still silent; it would vibrate with an incoming message when it was go time, or Ken would just have to guess. He tried to look contrite, but it was hard.
Another member of the organization with whom Ken had more than passing familiarity showed up at the west stairwell entrance, face set in hard lines. He was just as tall as Tiny, and Ken felt a momentary spark of irritation. He’d been short, even in Japan, but somehow it seemed that in the United States he was absurdly small. Or maybe the Chief only recruited giants.
“Kaz,” said the new arrival.
“MacLeod,” Ken said back. That name he could remember, but for the life of him, he would never be able to spell it. Ken had simply written Cloud every time he’d needed to use written correspondence, and the nickname had taken like wildfire. Before Aya, this man’s moniker had been Mac, but he hadn’t been with the organization for long before Ken and Aya showed up and renamed him accidentally. He was young, Ken thought, no older than Ken himself and maybe younger. They’d almost been friends, and MacLeod looked apologetic now.
“Well, come on, then,” MacLeod said, and started toward the stairs. Ken glanced over his shoulder toward Tiny, who was lurking by the broken glass again, and followed his erstwhile friend.
The stairwell was well lit, unlike the back rooms off the foyer, fluorescent lights in the ceiling and a few narrow windows with the same thick glass bricks. The east stairwell led to the second and third floor, but Ken was aware that the west stairwell led to the third floor only. The second floor was also accessible by routes down from the second-floor balcony in the rear, meant to show off the manufacturing room to whoever was slated to see it, but the third floor wasn’t for visitors. Or so Ken guessed, given that the stairs were bare concrete and the railing painted the same flaking industrial gray. There was an access door to the second floor, but it was barred and a keypad flashing red sat next to it.
“So what’s going on?” he asked, and MacLeod actually paused on one of the landings.
“I can’t really talk about it,” he said, sounding unhappy.
“You can talk,” Ken said, trying for a winning smile.
“The Chief is this way,” MacLeod said, and started up the stairs again. The final landing was the same bare concrete, a slightly wider window to the outside adding its light to the brightness of the white-painted ceiling. Ken felt the communicator buzz against his skin.
“Just a minute,” he said, ignoring MacLeod’s startled question. He pulled it out of his pocket and settled it into his ear.
“Go,” he heard Bombay say calmly, and Ken grinned.
Ken had wondered, more than once, if knowing these men – their quirks and habits, their backgrounds – after having worked with them for the past two months would make them harder to kill, and put aside the question. It resurfaced now, as comprehension spread across MacLeod’s face too late. Siberian buried his claws in the obstacle’s chest, feeling its heart come to a shuddering halt. He ripped his weapon back out, shoving the body out of the way and pulling open the door. “Got it,” he said into the comm. “Balinese?”
“I’m on my way to you,” Balinese said. “Got the goods for you, Bombay.”
“Less talking,” Bombay said, and the radio went silent.
Siberian slipped through the door, glancing both ways down the hall. Abyssinian was on the west side of the building, but Siberian had no idea how many people were between him and his goal. The roster of the organization seemed to ebb and flow, and even two months in, he didn’t have a solid handle on the logistics. This is why Weiß doesn’t do undercover, he thought, and then put it away. It wasn’t a helpful response. Siberian moved as quickly as he could, trying to stay quiet and listen for footsteps.
The next few faces around the corner were unfamiliar, and Siberian catalogued that impression to report later. They were a set of three, already pulling out guns. Siberian was faster than they were, raking his claws against the first obstacle’s chest and hamstringing the second in a low slide. The third faltered, a look of surprise on its face, and Siberian used the wall to push off and slice through its throat. The second obstacle moved, still a threat, and Siberian heard the scrape of its gun coming off the floor. Siberian took the gun out of the last obstacle’s hand and flung it, a dull thunk echoing as it connected with the second obstacle’s forehead. Siberian followed the gun, puncturing the obstacle’s lung and leaving it to bleed out.
Gunshots rang out from the floor below and Siberian frowned. Bombay was supposed to be safer, taking advantage of the distraction provided by Siberian and then by Siberian and Balinese to clean out the target’s computers and at least partially complete their primary objective. If – his train of thought was rudely interrupted by Balinese around the corner, confirming Ken’s sudden fear.
“Bombay’s pinned down,” Balinese said. Siberian hadn’t picked up on the radio chatter at all. “He’s got the goods, but he’s a little stuck.”
“I got this,” Siberian said. Abyssinian was a few doors down and Siberian could move through the ceiling. He pulled the still loaded gun out of the cold hands on the floor, clicking the safety on and shoving it in his waistband where it wouldn’t hinder his movement. He could go through the ceiling, if he remembered where the load-bearing beams were. “You get Bombay and get out of here.”
“Pick up Abyssinian first,” Bombay said sharply in Siberian’s ear. “We leave as a team.”
Siberian picked up a second gun, making sure its safety was locked, and put it in his jacket pocket. Get him out of here, he mouthed to Balinese. Mission first.
The look Balinese gave him was full of sympathy, and Ken’s skin crawled. He wasn’t choosing between Aya and Omi; he was putting the mission first, the way he’d been trained. The way they’d all been trained. Bombay had the information Kritiker wanted, ergot it was paramount that he get to safety and get the data back to Japan. That Ken choked on the thought of Omi not making it back from a mission was incidental, at best; it was Siberian making this decision, as he had been taught to do.
“Roger that,” Balinese said, even though Bombay was field leader in Abyssinian’s technical absence. Siberian ran with him to the west stairwell and then split off, moving down another corridor. The first snag in his plan showed up in the form of a sudden hole in the wall next to his head, and Siberian dropped low to make himself less of a target.
The obstacle was stubborn, well-trained and using the walls and doors as confusion rather than shielding; the bullets would go right through the plaster, but if Siberian couldn’t see his opponent to aim at it, it didn’t matter. He crept along the corridor, taking advantage of his opponent’s tactics to listen for its movements. When Siberian finally stood over itm, he took an extra few seconds to slice his opponent’s fingers away from the trigger before ending its life.
Momentarily in the clear, Siberian clambered up into the ceiling, moving along the dusty space. He didn’t have to go far; he dropped out of the ceiling to land lightly on his feet behind a short man with no weapon. The Chief’s second, Ken’s brain supplied, and Siberian cut through his spine at the neck before the target had so much as turned around. The man dropped heavily, and Siberian moved out of the way.
There were two other men in the room, men he recognized and dispatched as silently as he could. It took a little longer than it should have, partly because Siberian was trying to be quiet and partly because he could smell smoke. “Balinese,” he said.
“I had to go for another distraction,” Balinese said, voice tight. “I’ve got Bombay, we’re nearly outside.”
“What’s wrong with Bombay?” Siberian asked, keeping his voice low and tight.
“He’s been hit,” Balinese said. “Temporarily incapacitated. I’m on it.”
“Mission first,” Siberian said, and his voice caught in his throat. His heart was pounding, more than it should have been, and he couldn’t make it calm down. It beat in his throat, and he swallowed hard. Mission, he thought. I have a job to do. He turned toward Abyssinian.
The other man was tied to a chair, head down. Siberian circled behind him and sliced through the rope. At least they didn’t use handcuffs. Abyssinian tilted forward before he righted himself and then listed sideways, and Siberian barely caught him. Abyssinian looked up for the first time, pupils dilated so wide Siberian didn’t think he could see clearly at all. “It’s me,” he said quietly, and freed Abyssinian’s feet. “We have to go.”
An explosion rocked the building and Siberian staggered. Abyssinian swayed with him, and Siberian pulled him to his feet. The smoke was hanging more heavily in the air, coating the back of his throat, and Siberian coughed. His eyes watered and he glanced at the ceiling before looking back at Abyssinian. There was no way he was getting his teammate up there. The door cracked open, taking the decision out of his hands, and Siberian pulled the handgun out of his pocket and shot once. The first obstacle dropped, followed swiftly by the second.
“There’s a fire escape from the roof,” he said to Abyssinian, but Abyssinian’s eyes weren’t tracking and Siberian didn’t think he was listening. The sound of the fire came closer. “Come on.”
Sirens wailed in the distance, coming steadily closer, and Siberian ran for the roof access stairwell. The first flames were creeping along the corridor behind them, and Siberian ducked as low as he could. The heat distorted his vision, sending shimmering waves across his field of view, and he rubbed his eyes with his hand. Warm metal against his face registered, and he remembered that he was holding a gun. The haze in his eyes was smoke, as well as heat. Siberian kicked open the access door – fire below, and smoke above, but it was the closest way out.
“Ken,” Abyssinian said, grasping at Siberian’s shoulder.
“Abyssinian,” Siberian returned. He took a deep breath of the clearest air he was going to get, and started up the stairs. His vision swam before they got to the first landing, but Abyssinian was holding tighter now, moving with more purpose, and Siberian kept going.
The access door was locked, keypad winking red, and Siberian shot it. The door clicked open and Siberian pulled Abyssinian through. The gravel of the rooftop crunched under their feet, echoing the crackling of the fire, but there were flames rising over the edge of the building behind them.
“Son of a bitch,” Siberian swore, and started toward where he thought the fire escape was. The ringing in his ears wasn’t stopping, and it took him a moment to recognize it as the approaching sirens. The smoke was thicker, and Siberian couldn’t breathe. He felt the gravel bite into his knees as he sank down, coughing, and the smoke drowned everything in painful choking gray.
Chapter 6: Extraction
Balinese turned his attention to Bombay; they’d reached the car, partially hidden in an alley, and avoided the first response teams headed toward the fire on site. Bombay had the data Kritiker wanted, and Balinese might have found something valuable off the one hard drive he’d copied – he hadn’t had time to go through it. Bombay had had the bad luck to have been hit, though, the bullet lodged somewhere in his left side with no exit wound in sight.
“Balinese to Siberian,” he said into the comm, but the only answer was static. Balinese tried again. “Balinese to Siberian, what is your status?”
The hissing noise of the static sounded like crackling flames, and Balinese tried to tamp down on his overactive imagination. He tapped the comm again, on the off chance that it had been reset somehow, but it was open and on the right channel. His hands were slick with Bombay’s blood, and Balinese shifted to put more pressure on the wound. “Siberian,” he tried again.
“Don’t leave them behind,” Bombay said, voice barely more than a whisper. He was ghost-pale, and Balinese could feel his heart hammering madly.
“Goddammit.” Bombay needed medical attention beyond what Balinese could give in the field; he was bleeding out, going by how fast his heart was pounding, sliding towards decompensated shock. There was no time to go back for Siberian and Abyssinian, no time to cover their tracks, and any bullet wound was going to require a police report. Balinese cursed again, pulled Bombay closer towards him, and put the stolen car in gear.
The comm had an emergency channel, as short of a range as the rest of its systems unless it was hooked into the same satellite network that Bombay used for his laptop, and Balinese couldn’t remember if they’d configured it or not. He took his hand off Bombay’s side for the half-second it took to toggle the right switch and listened for the click of connection.
The road stymied whatever sound the comm might have made, the car lurching over a pothole at the wrong moment, and it was all Balinese could do to keep pressure against Bombay’s side. He cursed again and gave a brief verbal rundown of the situation, ending with the statement that he was taking Bombay to the nearest hospital.
“Use your undercover identities,” came instructions back, in Manx’s voice, and Balinese nearly drove off the road. He’d half-thought no one was listening. “You’re going to give them the following police report number.” She rattled off a string of digits and Balinese committed it to memory; it was going to require verbal footwork to time it correctly, but he was already familiar with the process. The mobile flowershop had taken them outside Kritiker’s immediate range of influence more than once.
“Understood,” Balinese replied, and Manx signed off with a curt reminder to wait for further orders.
Balinese made a face at his headset and pulled into the hospital parking lot. “I need some help!” he called out the window, and then realized he’d been speaking the wrong language. He cursed again, left the car running, and pulled Bombay out of it to walk through the emergency room doors.
What seemed like a small eternity later, Yohji tapped his fingers against the smooth surfaces securely tucked in his pockets. He’d had the presence of mind to pull the equipment Bombay had used to steal their target’s data out of his jacket, which was the only part of the mission that hadn’t gone spectacularly wrong. Trying to rescue Aya and not only not getting him back but losing Ken as well was an unmitigated disaster even before factoring in Omi’s injury.
So far, the false number Yohji had provided at the right time was holding up, and the hospital had accepted that there was a valid police report already filed. The fire at the production site hadn’t been the only emergency straining resources , and Yohji couldn’t help but morbidly wonder if Kritiker had had something to do with the nine-car pileup less than a mile away. He hoped not; involving bystanders in an attempt to cover their agents seemed both against Kritiker’s mission statement and more effort than they were willing to put in to protect their assets. He tapped the equipment in his pocket again and glanced at the door.
Omi was asleep, having made it through the surgery and the immediate post-anesthetic recovery; removing the bullet had been fairly straightforward, and patching him up had apparently not been particularly complicated. The bullet had gone through a wall before it had gotten to Omi, pulling out enough of its momentum that it had gotten lodged in the outer edges of Omi’s spleen before grinding to a halt, and the worst damage had been the bleeding.
“Hang in there,” Yohji said quietly. Omi was hooked up to three different lines of varying functions, and whether or not his kidneys were going to respond well was apparently the question getting the most current attention. Yohji was unprepared for the hiss in his ear, the comm he’d all but forgotten was even there.
“Balinese,” came Manx’s voice. “Prepare for extraction.”
“Little hard to get Bombay to go anywhere,” Yohji said back.
“Bombay will be moved off-site to another facility,” Manx replied. Yohji glared at his reflection in the darkened window, shattered and distorted by the double layer of glass and the half-lit fluorescent lights overhead.
“I’m not sure -” he started.
“You and Bombay will not be separated,” Manx said, and Yohji could feel some of his tension drain off. Manx knew him too well, but they’d been working together for years. It was to be expected.
“Understood,” Yohji said.
“Transfer at 0600 local time,” Manx told him, following the brief instructions around the extraction protocol itself. “You have just under two hours for local cleanup.”
“It’s done.” Yohji had the satisfaction of a second of what he assumed was surprised silence before Manx acknowledged his work and signed off. He’d gotten rid of the car, not that he’d taken it far. There wasn’t much he could do about the apartment he and Omi had been staying in, but it had none of their mission gear and no identifying personal belongings. Everything in it was replaceable.
“Yohji?” Omi’s voice was soft, confused and almost forlorn. Or Yohji might have been projecting, from his own lack of sleep.
“Yeah,” he said, dropping into the chair next to Omi’s bed. He’d managed to neatly avoid the staff coming in on more or less regular rounds, which he felt spoke more toward the staff not doing their jobs properly than his own skills at stealth. Yohji was reaching the end of his rope, but he was the only one left to stay vigilant.
“Where.” Omi swallowed, eyes glittering in the half-dark.
“You’re in a hospital,” Yohji told him, although he’d had this conversation with Omi a few hours before, when he’d first been moved out of the post-anesthetic recovery unit.
“I know that,” Omi said, voice a little stronger. “Where are Ken and Aya?”
“Don’t worry about them right now. Extraction in just under two hours, to a separate North American facility.” Yohji didn’t think he was lying. If any one of them was important enough to Kritiker to keep alive, it was the son of its founder.
“You left them behind.” Omi’s mouth flattened into a straight line, face hard and accusatory. Yohji felt as though he were a child being taken to task, for all that Omi was flat on his back looking up at him.
“You were dying,” he snapped back, stung. “It was save your life or lose it in a futile attempt to get them out.”
“You don’t know it was hopeless,” Omi hissed.
“You weren’t awake enough to tell,” Yohji said. “There was no way I could have gotten both of them before you would have gone into shock and died.”
“You didn’t even try,” Omi said, and Yohji clamped his mouth shut before he could say something else.
“Extraction in just under two,” he said. “I’ll be back.” He slipped out the door before Omi could say anything else either, taking up residence in a dark corner of the chapel. Its lights were mostly off, only a pair of lamps lit up at the front. Yohji settled on one of the hard benches, aching for a cigarette but unwilling to leave the building. He’s not himself, he thought. Omi’s in pain, he’s drugged. He’s not thinking clearly.
The words had hurt, because Yohji knew they were more than true; he hadn’t gone back for Ken and Aya. He hadn’t tried. He’d cut their losses and fled, and he could justify it as holding to the primary mission all he wanted, but he’d left his friends behind to die. Omi wasn’t wrong to blame him. Yohji bit his lip and tried to figure out what he could have done differently, but he couldn’t pinpoint a single moment in which he could have changed the course of the mission. A thousand small decisions, each of which had seemed the right one at the time, and yet here they were.
Yohji stopped outside the room in the hallway, leaning against the wall for a moment. He didn’t have time to stop moving; if he did, he didn’t think he would be able to get started again, and there would be details to take care of to get Omi moved to whatever facility Kritiker thought would be a better fit. He took a few minutes to stop outside and pull the last whole cigarette out of the battered pack in his pocket, most of the slender cylinders torn or outright broken. The bitter smoke rushed into his lungs, giving him an overlying sense of calm.
Gradually, Yohji’s hands stopped shaking. He swallowed the taste of the smoke, feeling the gritty sensation of too much adrenaline and too little sleep imprinting itself on his eyeballs. What if they never made it out of the building ran in a loop over and over again, and he pressed the palms of his hands against the side of his skull to make it stop. It didn’t help. Ken was perfectly capable, and Aya wouldn’t have been entirely helpless even if he’d been drugged into insensibility and tied hand and foot.
The sky along the horizon started to show the first hint of false dawn, glowing a sullen gray, and Yohji stalked back inside. Handling the details of Omi’s transfer left him in no better of a mood, and he went up to Omi’s room with a promise from the overnight staff to be along shortly to prepare Omi for the move. Yohji’s task, according to the staff, was to collect Omi’s belongings; he’d shoved them into the bag now sitting innocuously next to Omi’s bed hours before.
“And you say I’m never prepared,” he muttered, walking through the door. Omi was asleep, face smooth and looking like the student he should have been. Didn’t he miss exams for this, back when we started this mission? Yohji shook his head. The spring semester was long over and Omi had missed the start of the fall term by weeks already, even if they went back to Japan tonight. Yohji bit the inside of his cheek; his thoughts were wandering. He pulled the bag off the floor and dumped it in the chair he wasn’t going to sit in, and made one more circuit of the room to check for anything forgotten. When he turned back to the bed, Omi’s eyes were open.
“Yohji,” Omi said.
“Omi,” he returned, unsure of which tack Omi was going to take.
“I need my laptop,” Omi said. “We have a rescue mission.”
Yohji hated it when he had to be the responsible one. “Kritiker’s transferring you out of this facility in just over half an hour,” he said. “Once we’re wherever they want us to be -”
“Do you know?” Omi asked, and it sounded like an accusation.
“No, Omi. I don’t know. I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know if Ken and Aya are still alive. I don’t know anything.” Yohji clamped his jaw shut before his voice could get any louder; he thought he hadn’t been audible past the open door. No one came running, which was probably a good sign.
“I’m sorry,” Omi said, and reached out a hand. Yohji shuffled forward, looking anywhere but directly at Omi, and took his teammate’s hand. The line inserted below Omi’s wrist shifted alarmingly under Yohji’s thumb, and he froze, carefully relaxing his grip. Omi glanced downward. “It’s not like it’s not going to come out anyway,” he said.
“Still.” Yohji squeezed gently, careful not to touch the line this time.
“We have to go back for them,” Omi said, and he was holding on to Yohji with all the strength he appeared to possess, knuckles whitening under the strain.
“We don’t – the building burned down.” He’d seen bits and pieces of late-night news reports, even if more up-to-date information was all but impossible to get without access to equipment Yohji just didn’t have. “Emergency personnel haven’t reported how many victims. Or survivors.”
“They wouldn’t, though,” Omi said. “Maybe.” His gaze sharpened. “Burned down?”
“We needed a distraction.” Yohji heard the pleading note in his own voice and hated it, but he’d had hours to regret the choices he’d made. “There wasn’t time, Omi.”
“You set an industrial building on fire,” Omi said. “With Ken inside.”
It hadn’t been Yohji’s finest moment, when he’d thought about the memories the fire was likely to trigger in his teammate, but by then it had been too late. “I was trying to keep all of us alive,” he snapped.
“That didn’t go so well, did it,” Omi snapped back, and Yohji clenched his jaw shut. He really, really hated being the responsible one, and it was up to him to not escalate this argument into a screaming match.
“Good morning, Mr. Kaneda,” came a bright voice speaking accented English, and Yohji controlled his startled response enough that all he did was turn around swiftly. “I didn’t realize your brother was here as well,” the speaker continued, smiling at Yohji. “Ah, Mr. Kaneda -”
“Call me Jun,” Yohji said smoothly, smiling at her for all he was worth. “I’ll just be, ah, outside while you take care of my little brother here.”
“Sure thing!” The smile didn’t fade one watt, and Yohji slipped out the door yet again. He swallowed the bile rising in his throat, and by the time the ambulance showed up to drive Omi to Kritiker’s choice of new location, Yohji was too exhausted to argue with any point other than insisting he be allowed to ride with Omi.
The comm buzzed in Yohji’s ear before they’d been on the road more than a few minutes, and Yohji looked at the two paramedics hovering at Omi. He ignored the comm in favor of not looking like a crazy person, or worse, blowing what little cover he had by showing off equipment that his assumed identity didn’t have any reason to own. The comm buzzed again, more insistently, and one of the paramedics looked at him and quirked an eyebrow.
Snarling, Yohji tapped the comm. “Yes?” he said.
“I said to keep an eye on Bombay, not antagonize him,” came Manx’s voice in his ear, curt and grating.
“He started it,” Yohji said.
“Don’t you start with me,” Manx said.
“He wants to know the status of the rescue operation,” Yohji said, although Omi hadn’t quite said that in so many words. “So do I.”
“Kudo, you know the rules.” Manx didn’t sound unsympathetic, but she was a master at controlling her face and voice. She never sounded unsympathetic, just implacable in following Persia’s instructions. “There’s nothing Kritiker can do for them.”
“Then let me try to get to them.” Yohji stuffed a yawn back down his throat. “Not Kritiker. Just me.” If Omi could gather information and run some sort of digital interference, Yohji had faith in his own abilities to pull his teammates out of whatever hole they’d fallen into. Then again, he would have said the three of them could have gotten Aya out of the manufacturing center, and look how that had gone.
“You’re in no condition either, Balinese.” Manx had no call to say that. She couldn’t see him. She had no idea. “In case you hadn’t noticed, you didn’t escape uninjured.”
Yohji reflected that he shouldn’t have let the ED staff handle the minor cuts and bruises he’d gotten; the bastards had documented it, which had given Kritiker a paper trail and ammunition to use against him.
“I’m fine,” he muttered into the comm. He needed her to listen.
“Balinese, we don’t know who has them.” He could picture Manx putting her hands on her hips, the way she did when she thought he was acting unreasonable and he was the most reasonable person in the room. “We -” she paused, and her voice softened. “We don’t even know they’re still alive.”
“Bullshit,” Yohji said. “You know damn good and well whether or not they’re still alive.” He was too tired to play Kritiker’s games tonight.
“You’re not wrong.” The softness vanished from Manx’s voice. “I’m going to be straight with you, Yohji.”
That meant she was going to try to feed him a more palatable lie, Yohji thought sourly, but he listened.
“Abyssinian and Siberian weren’t picked up by the local first responders.”
Yohji sat up straighter, some of the fog clearing out of his brain. “What do you mean, they weren’t picked up by the local EMS?”
“One of the individuals in the organization was an undercover U.S. agent. He’d been there for months. His agency was planning a raid as soon as they collected enough of the right information. We walked right into the middle of their operation.” If Yohji hadn’t known better, he would have said Manx sounded nervous. “We think he was one of the casualties, which puts Abyssinian and Siberian in a rather delicate position.”
“Are you fucking kidding me,” Yohji growled. He had a few choice words and more unflattering thoughts on cooperation, but it wasn’t as though Kritiker was well-known for playing nice with others. Kritiker, to be fair, wasn’t really known at all, not even within the official framework of the Japanese government. “So who has them?”
“We’re really not sure.” Manx didn’t quite sigh into the comm. “If I learn more, I’ll let you know, but officially, Abyssinian and Siberian’s files have been closed.”
Yohji did not rip the comm out of his ear and crush it, or fling it out of the moving vehicle, by virtue of gathering every scrap of self-control he possessed. He tapped it to turn it off, took a deep breath, and held it long enough that both paramedics stopped looking at Omi and started staring at him instead. He let the air out in a long, slow exhale, relaxing his clenched hands. “I’m good,” he said in English. No one appeared convinced, least of all Omi, who hadn’t heard Manx’s side of the conversation; his comm was in the duffle bag shoved under the uncomfortable seat Yohji had been unceremoniously shoved in to to keep him out of the way.
“Well?” Omi said.
“I’ll explain everything when we get there,” Yohji said, and Omi was going to have to be content with that for the time being.
Not even the stress and tension could overshadow the gradually increasing soporific drone of the road sliding past under the wheels, and Yohji eventually opened his eyes to full daylight and the door in the back of the ambulance cracking open.
“Where are we?” he asked, once he got his tongue unstuck from the roof of his mouth.
“Pennsylvania,” Omi said, and Yohji had to ask him to repeat it twice. Omi said it without a trace of an accent, which seemed monumentally unfair to Yohji’s still sleep-deprived brain.
“Why are we in Pennsylvania?” he asked, stumbling over the unfamiliar pronunciation.
“Because it’s not New York or New Jersey,” came another familiar voice, and it took Yohji several seconds to realize that it was speaking Japanese.
“Birman!” he said, and then the carefully controlled chaos of extracting Omi from the ambulance distracted Yohji enough that he lost track of where anyone was at any given moment. When he finally climbed out of the back of the vehicle, Birman was nowhere to be seen, and he wondered if he’d hallucinated here.
“Over here, Balinese.” Birman stepped out from beside the ambulance, leading Yohji toward the doors of what looked like a fairly small hospital. The man who greeted the paramedics wore scrubs and was of Japanese descent. “Don’t ask,” Birman said. “He owes us whatever favors we ask. Just be grateful your operation was only a few hours away from his facility.”
“Sure,” Yohji muttered, and let Birman take point in getting Omi set up.
Despite the care taken, Omi’s face was pinched with pain by the time the last of the staff members exited his new room to leave Birman and Yohji standing on opposite sides of his bed.
“Balinese,” Birman said, and held out her hand. She radiated patience, in the manner of someone wanting the other party to understand exactly how patient they had been, and that said patience was nearing its end.
“What,” Yohji said; he had no idea what she wanted. He’d followed all of her directions, and Manx’s, and they were down half their team and still stuck in a foreign country.
“The mission,” Birman said, the words a scathing indictment of Yohji’s performance on said mission, and Yohji suddenly felt the heavy weight of Omi’s equipment in his jacket pockets. He hadn’t let it out of his metaphorical sight, not since he’d gotten Omi to the hospital to begin with, and from Birman’s expression, it was the only part of the entire operation he’d done right. He pulled out the three drives and handed them over; two were slightly dented and the third had a long scratch down one side. Yohji had no idea whether or not that would affect their functionality, and he didn’t particularly care.
“Thank you,” Birman said, conveying no appreciation despite the words. The drives vanished into her handbag before she’d said the first word.
“Ken and Aya,” Omi said over the last syllable, and then winced. “Siberian and Abyssinian,” he corrected.
“Are not currently your concern,” Birman said. Yohji thought she was trying to be gentle, but she wasn’t quite as good at this game as Manx was, and he wondered briefly why Manx hadn’t come instead.
“They’re Kritiker’s concern,” Omi pushed, even though he knew the rules better than any of them. It was his family that had written them. Yohji thought perhaps that was why Omi was trying to disregard them now; he’d never traded on what passed for family connections before, but the lives of his teammates was impetus enough, Yohji thought.
“Omi,” Birman said, and then her mouth firmed. “Kritiker cannot retrieve Abyssinian and Siberian. As I told Balinese, their files are closed.”
The look Omi gave him promised a conversation coming that Yohji knew he wasn’t going to like. He spoke to Birman instead, though. “I refuse to accept that,” he said, eyes narrowed and cold. “You can’t just leave them there.”
“We can and we will.” Birman matched him, glare for glare. “They know the risks of this job as well as you do, Bombay.” She finally kept her face smooth, a composed and emotionless mask that Manx would have been proud of. “You’ll be assigned new members within a couple of months. Until then, Weiß is temporarily deactivated.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Yohji broke in, before Omi could say something he’d regret. “They have information that isn’t going to make Japan look good. They’ll break, if the wrong agency has them, and the consequences won’t be pretty.”
From the look on Omi’s face, he hadn’t thought that far. Yohji couldn’t blame him; Omi was less than 24 hours out from having a bullet dug out of his spleen. “And they’re our friends,” he said. “We’re not going to abandon them, Birman.”
“Balinese. Bombay.” Birman’s mask slipped again, and she looked more tired than anything else. “You’ve both raised valid concerns,” she said. “However, Kritiker’s hands are tied. We cannot intervene in a valid operation conducted by a foreign government on its own soil.”
“Birman,” Omi said, and Birman flung up a hand. Omi subsided, biting his lip.
“Of course,” Birman continued, “if, during Weiß’ temporary period of inactivity – and both current members of Weiß are currently instructed to remain exactly where they are for the foreseeable future, due to the nature of Bombay’s injuries – the unit were to take a field trip or two, Kritiker might be persuaded to lend some equipment.”
Omi’s eyes lit up, and for a solid fifteen seconds, Yohji would have believed that he hadn’t nearly bled out in the front of a stolen car the day before. Color suffused his cheeks, and he restrained the smile that so clearly wanted to break free. “I’ll have a list by the end of the day,” he said.
“You’ll have a list in a week and not before,” Birman snapped. “That is not negotiable. Whatever you do, you’re going to be in good enough physical shape to do it.”
“But -” Omi started.
“She’s not wrong,” Yohji said, trying for the gentle tone Birman had set at the start of the conversation and then lost entirely. “We can’t have a repeat of the last incident.” He paused. “We can’t lose either you or me, too, Omi.”
“But I -” Omi said again, and Birman leaned over to press a hand against the still-fresh wound on Omi’s side. He blanched pale and fell silent.
“Kritiker has no compunction about removing both of you from the situation entirely,” Birman said.
“One week, and I get all the information you can gather,” Omi said. Birman nodded.
“You have my word,” she said, spun on her heel, and left the room.
“We’re going to get them out of there, Yohji.” Omi smiled, but there was nothing of joy in it. “We’re going to get them back alive.”
“I mean it, about you being up to it,” Yohji said. “It’s going to be harder getting into whatever facility they’ve got Ken and Aya in than it was getting into that building, and there are only two of us.”
“We’re going to be more prepared,” Omi said absently. “If we’re lucky, they’ll keep them around here until we can get to them, instead of moving them somewhere else.”
“Another worry I didn’t know I needed to have.” Yohji hooked the one chair in the room with his ankle and sank into it. “Omi,” he said tentatively, when Omi didn’t answer. “I -” He broke off, unsure of how to apologize for leaving half the team behind, or if an apology would be worse than saying nothing. Words didn’t help after leaving friends to die.
“You did the best you could at the time,” Omi said, and shifted around until he was looking at Yohji. “You got me out, after we had some unexpected setbacks.”
“It wasn’t any more difficult than anything we’d done before,” Yohji said, and that was the other sticking point. Weiß had handled missions like this in the past; there was no reason for it to have gone south so spectacularly.
“Bad luck was bound to catch us sooner or later,” Omi said. “I got shot. Aya was the objective. There were more of them in there than we thought, and they were better trained than we were expecting, even after spending a couple of months in as close of contact as we could.”
“You don’t need to make excuses for me,” Yohji said. “I screwed it up.”
“We all made mistakes.” Omi stared at him. “We’re going to fix them, Yohji. That’s a promise.”
Shouldn’t make promises you don’t know if you can keep, Yohji thought, but he just smiled. “Okay,” he said, and smoothed the hair out of Omi’s eyes. “Okay.”
Chapter 7: Incarceration
Abyssinian paced the dimensions of the concrete and steel room exactly once, to get a feel for his environment. Pain thrummed through his temples, pounding in time with his pulse, and there was a sour taste on his tongue. Siberian was slumped in the corner, still unconscious; he’d been sprawled on the floor when Abyssinian had woken, and his breathing hadn’t been entirely regular. He hadn’t woken at Abyssinian’s prodding, but Abyssinian had a hazy memory that sitting more or less upright would help him breathe.
Memory was the other point giving Abyssinian trouble; he remembered going into the distribution center, knowing it was probably a trap, and hoping the rest of Weiß caught up with him in time. It didn’t look as though any part of that had gone according to plan, not with Siberian trapped right along with him. No one was visible in the short hallway outside the door, and the sounds of the ventilation were too loud for Abyssinian to catch any noises that might have indicated human presence. He’d shouted down the hall in English when he’d first woken, trying to get someone to pay attention to the fact that Siberian needed more than Abyssinian could give him, but no one had come.
A silently intrusive camera lens gleamed brightly in the corner, and Abyssinian pretended he hadn’t seen it. It was flush against the wall, unobtrusive unless one knew what to look for, and Abyssinian thought he wasn’t meant to know they were being observed. He could play that game; he was capable of a tactical assessment of a situation, no matter what Bombay thought. He did try to see out the small and highly placed windows, but he was too short to see out of them properly and the glass was murky and opaque besides. Abyssinian dropped his heels back to the ground.
Mission boots were still on his feet, but Abyssinian had no idea if the tracker was still present, or if it was functioning if it was. The battery life was relatively limited, and he didn’t know if Bombay or Balinese had gotten out of whatever situation had left Siberian unconscious and unresponsive. A flash of acrid heat came back to him, and Abyssinian froze until the memory subsided; he’d been pressed against Siberian’s side, he thought, being dragged up a stairwell full of smoke and onto a roof. Pity he couldn’t remember any of the interrogation he must have been subjected to, he thought, and then glanced down the hallway again.
Still no one. “Hey!” Abyssinian shouted again, for good measure, accomplishing nothing but making his headache worse. “I hate being drugged,” he muttered to no one in particular.
A small noise from the corner caught his attention, and he turned to see Siberian stirring. He knelt next to his teammate. “Siberian,” he said.
Siberian’s eyes opened, but didn’t focus, and he blinked as though he were having trouble staying awake. “A-Aya?” he said, and the word incited a spate of coughing. His voice had been clear, though, for all that Siberian doubled over in an apparent attempt to regain control of his breathing. “Fuck,” he said, finally.
“Siberian,” Abyssinian repeated, holding a hand just over his teammate’s shoulders. Siberian’s mission gear was still mostly intact, except that his gloves and goggles were missing. Not, Abyssinian knew, that the goggles had any sort of consistent purpose; unlike Bombay’s, Siberian wore them purely for misdirection, although he occasionally used them to keep spattering fluids out of his eyes. “How do you feel?”
The two of them made a sorry pair, but at least Abyssinian was fairly sure he could walk a straight line, and maybe even run without his head exploding, if it came down to it. He wasn’t having trouble breathing, not even after breathing in as much smoke as Siberian must have. Siberian hesitated before answering, glancing around the room. “Not great.” He rubbed at his eyes and then looked around again, as though he’d finally managed to get them to focus. “Kinda dizzy. Hurts to breathe.”
“Stay where you are, then.” Abyssinian shifted into a crouch, keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground. He felt better, in a position from which he could react more quickly. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Siberian took in a ragged breath, but didn’t cough again, and he glanced over at Abyssinian. “Mission,” he said, and let out a low half-laugh. “Well, sort of.”
“You weren’t supposed to -” Abyssinian started.
“Fuck you,” Siberian said wearily. “There was information on the computer system in the compound, and since we’d been made it was our only chance to get it back out. That’s where they were doing the manufacturing, Abyssinian, not off-site. That wasn’t just a distribution center.”
Abyssinian was suddenly hyper-aware of the camera behind him, but he thought the back of his head was blocking the camera’s view of Siberian’s mouth, and neither of them had been speaking loudly. Siberian drew his knees up toward his chest and glanced over Abyssinian’s shoulder.
“Balinese set the building on fire so I could get you out,” he said, voice even quieter. “Bombay -” his voice caught, and he doubled over again, coughing. His skin was pale and covered in a sheen of sweat by the time he managed to calm it down, and he leaned back against the wall. “Bombay was hit,” he whispered, “and Balinese was trying to get him to safety. I told him to go, Aya, I told him to get Omi out of there.”
His voice was barely audible, but the note of pleading was as clear as if he’d been shouting. Abyssinian couldn’t give him absolution; Siberian had followed mission protocol, if Balinese and Bombay had accomplished the primary objective of data theft, and he knew it. It wasn’t Abyssinian’s place to make him feel better for doing his job correctly.
“Do you know where we are?” Abyssinian asked, just as softly, and Siberian shook his head.
“Do you?” he asked, and then grimaced. “Of course you don’t.”
“Can you stand?” Abyssinian rose to his feet, tamping down on the rush of pain that came with it, and carefully did not look at the camera.
“Maybe.” Siberian reached for the hand that Abyssinian extended, and ended up leaning on the wall but with both feet and nothing else firmly on the ground. His color was better, and his breathing a little more even, and Abyssinian resisted the urge to shout down the hallway again. “You don’t know how we got here,” he said, and nodded at the minute shake of Abyssinian’s head. “How long have you been awake?”
“Not long.” Abyssinian glanced around the cell again, but he couldn’t see more than the one camera without making an obvious search, and Siberian was frowning at him when he turned back.
Camera? He mouthed the word with an inquiring expression, face still probably hidden from the lens. Abyssinian throttled the thread of irritation; neither of them were at their best. He nodded curtly, and Siberian’s eyes widened. Abyssinian could see the moment he noticed the camera, but whoever was watching might miss the subtle shift in his expression. “You all right?” he asked, in an obvious attempt to mask the silent exchange, as if it would do any good. His eyes flickered over Abyssinian’s body with a practiced glance. “You were pretty messed up, when I found you.”
“I don’t have any injuries,” Abyssinian said. He had some bruises; he could feel them, below the jeans and button-down shirt that had belonged to his cover identity. They reeked of smoke, and the soft t-shirt against his skin was no better. Abyssinian would have expected to be more badly hurt, would have expected broken bones and torn skin, after an interrogation with a group like the one they’d infiltrated, but either Weiß had gotten to him before his captors had really gotten going, or they’d had a different plan.
“I don’t know what they gave you,” Siberian said. “You were completely out of it.”
“I’m fine now,” Abyssinian said, and the pain spiked through his temples. He clenched his jaw on the gasp that had wanted to escape, and Siberian looked at him worriedly. “You’re the one who needs medical attention,” he added.
“I’m doing great,” Siberian retorted, but Abyssinian could hear him struggling.
“Go sit down,” he said, pushing Siberian over to the low shelf that might have been intended as a bed.
“I told you, I’m fine,” Siberian said, but he let himself be led. The disadvantage to the maybe-bed was that it left Siberian’s face in full view of the camera, and Abyssinian couldn’t stand between him and it without making it extremely obvious. “Do you think we got picked up by EMS?” Siberian asked. It was clear from his tone that he didn’t think that had happened.
Abyssinian shook his head, and sat on the bench next to his teammate. He left one hand on Siberian’s shoulder.
“Do you think...” Siberian didn’t look at the camera, and he didn’t finish the sentence. Abyssinian heard it anyway.
“If anyone made it out, they did,” he said softly.
“Yeah, I would have said that about us, too,” Siberian said, with a flash of his old humor. “But look at us now.”
“Very amusing,” said a strange voice in accented Japanese, and Abyssinian failed to suppress the wince as he realized what language he and Siberian had been speaking. From his expression, Siberian was thinking the same thing.
“Where are we?” Abyssinian asked flatly in English. The voice belonged to a man standing outside the door, visible through the bars, and as Abyssinian watched, the door swung open. The man stepped into the room, wearing a crisp dark suit implying over-meticulous attention to detail. It was belied by the careless smirk hovering over the man’s lips.
“Oh, you’re still in New Jersey,” the man said. “Not that it really matters to a terrorist like yourself, since you’re not going anywhere until we decide to let you.” He straightened his cuffs. “That’s going to be a very, very long time from now,” he added, unnecessarily. Abyssinian resisted the urge to roll his eyes; the implication had been clear.
“Who are you?” Abyssinian asked instead. The man hadn’t asked them any questions, and that seemed like a bad sign even in Abyssinian’s limited experience.
“That has nothing to do with you.” The man smiled at him, and it was more unpleasant than the smirk had been. It left an oily sensation floating in Abyssinian’s head, and he glanced sideways at Siberian. His teammate’s eyes were closed again, and he was leaning forward, elbows resting on his knees. “He’s going to be fine,” the man said, eyes flicking to follow Abyssinian’s gaze. “Probably.”
That Siberian’s well-being hinged directly on how well Abyssinian cooperated was as clear as if he’d shouted it, and this time, the man didn’t make the mistake of saying it out loud. Abyssinian’s eyes narrowed before he could stop them. “What do you want?” he said. Standing now was too little, too late; he’d lost any chance at the high ground or even equal footing long ago, if he’d ever had it. Abyssinian stood anyway, placing himself between Siberian and the nameless man with his arms crossed over his chest.
“You’re not like the others,” the man said. “Not from around here.”
Abyssinian didn’t dignify that with a response.
“What I can’t quite figure,” the man continued, “is why you and your friend there were in there to begin with. You’re obviously not – friendly, with Morris’s group.”
It took Abyssinian a moment to equate the name Morris with the man the organization had only referred to as the Chief, and he looked at the nameless man just a little too late. “I wouldn’t say friendly,” he said, in lieu of a useful response.
“You’re not here with permission, either,” the man continued. “Even if your friend there was clearly trained and prepared, if what we found in that building is any indication.”
“He’s not dangerous at all,” Abyssinian said. The implication that came from the information the man was so freely providing was that they were being held either by some branch of law enforcement or that the local law enforcement was compromised enough to hand out restricted information, and either way Abyssinian wasn’t happy. “About as threatening as a kitten.”
“Siberian,” the man said. “Like the cat. Abyssinian, did he call you? Beautiful creatures.”
Abyssinian bit his tongue.
“Kitty-cat code names?” the man said. “Seems a little unusual, but I’ve seen weirder.” He took a deliberate step towards Abyssinian, still remaining barely outside arm’s reach. “I’m more interested in who you work for, Abyssinian, because I feel that you’ve provoked an international incident here. One of my men is dead by his hand, and that puts him on trial for murder.”
“One of your men?” Abyssinian said, surprised into a genuine response. “One of them was yours?”
“We’ve been trying for months to bring Morris’s group down,” the man said softly. “You and yours screwed that up. Half of them are in the wind, including Morris, and that has everything to do with the stunt the two of you pulled.”
Abyssinian suddenly noted that the man hadn’t said anything about Balinese or Bombay, hadn’t even alluded to the possibility that there’d been more than two of them, and hope bloomed in his chest. If half of Weiß had escaped, that meant it hadn’t been a total disaster. “I’m sorry about your agent,” he said, testing the word.
“Sorry doesn’t bring anyone back,” the man snapped. Abyssinian kept his face smooth; it was worse than he’d hoped, if they were being held by the American federal government instead of a state or city department, but they were less likely than Morris’s operation to flat-out murder either Abyssinian or Siberian. “You’re going to tell me everything you know, before we’re done here.”
“I have nothing to say to you.” Abyssinian tilted his chin up, glaring at the other man.
“Feisty, for someone so tiny,” the man said. He had a solid eight centimeters on Abyssinian, but Abyssinian had spent the past two months refusing to be intimidated by height differences. The two men just outside the door were even taller and correspondingly broad in the shoulders. They exuded a fluid grace, even standing still, and Abyssinian recognized it belatedly in the nameless man as well. All of them were trained in some form of unarmed combat, which could only serve to make things interesting. It had been a while, since he’d fought someone outside of a practice ring without a sword in his hands.
“Feisty,” Abyssinian repeated. It was an unfamiliar word, but he was fairly sure he understood it, given the context. “Thank you.” He smiled. He could feel, rather than hear, the change in Siberian’s breathing from behind him. It quickened slightly in preparation, ready to respond to whatever Abyssinian dictated as the course of action.
“Please come with me,” the man said. He looked relaxed. It was a lie.
Abyssinian moved toward him slowly, giving every sign of cooperation, keeping his movements as innocuous as possible and his hands in clear view. When he got within striking distance of the man, he spread his hands out to the side slightly, dropped his gaze, and stood still.
The man smiled. “Good,” he said. “I see you understand it is futile to resist.”
Abyssinian bit the inside of his cheek. Weiß wasn’t going to be subdued that easily, but picking their moment was also important. He kept his gaze lowered, glancing around through his lashes. The man gestured him through the door, wary but failing to keep a watchful eye on Siberian. The two bodyguards fell back, allowing him through the door, and then filed into the cell to flank Siberian. They think he’s more of a threat, then, despite his injuries. Abyssinian couldn’t blame them; as far as they knew, Siberian had been the one to wreak havoc back in New Jersey.
The hallway told Abyssinian nothing, as he paused on the threshold. He put one hand against the door frame and leaned against it just slightly, letting his head drop a little lower. The nameless man didn’t take the bait and neither did the bodyguards; they stood without moving, waiting for him to pull himself together enough to continue to follow.
Abyssinian’s breathing matched Siberian’s, quick and rhythmic, and he made his decision. There was nothing to be gained by waiting, no information that they were going to obtain by letting either one of them be interrogated. All that could possibly come out of it was the possibility that one or both of them broke enough to give up Weiß or Kritiker, and that was the worst possible outcome. Without warning, Abyssinian moved.
The highest level of threat came from the nameless man with his careless smirk; the half-smile fell into an expression of shock and dismay, and Abyssinian allowed himself a second of contempt. Had he really believed they would go quietly? He’d seen what allegedly Siberian alone had done at the production site. Abyssinian dropped and spun, lashing out with his heel to catch the man on the left side of the jaw. He put enough force behind it to break bone, but the man’s head simply snapped sideways under the impact. He staggered but did not fall to the ground with a broken neck, and Abyssinian felt the data file itself away for later analysis.
Then again, this wasn’t the first time Abyssinian had squared off against someone who simply refused to lie down and die after taking what should have been fatal damage; he used his momentum to drop his foot back to the floor and surge upward with his left fist toward the man’s gut. His opponent blocked it with both hands, but failed to catch Aya’s right fist, swinging in wide and catching him in the throat. The man started to bend, hands flying up toward his throat, and Abyssinian grabbed his head with both now-free hands and brought his knee to smash into the man’s face. He missed his intended target of the man’s nose and hit his forehead instead, but it was good enough.
Abyssinian shoved the man’s collapsing form into the cell and turned to check on Siberian. One of the guards was already prone and immobile, and Abyssinian felt a flash of pride in his teammate’s tenacity. The other, however, had Siberian in a chokehold, and Siberian’s movements were beginning to slow. Abyssinian felt his eyes narrow and he stepped over his nameless opponent’s prone form to start toward the both of them.
The guard saw him coming and made the quick tactical decision of throwing Siberian toward Abyssinian, the one potential outcome Abyssinian hadn’t expected. He caught Siberian, but overbalanced and the two of them both went down. Abyssinian landed on something soft with Siberian on top of him, his outflung hand brushing something smooth and metallic. That bastard had a gun the whole time, he thought irrelevantly, and grabbed for it as Siberian flailed in an attempt to break free. The remaining conscious guard was already groping for his own weapon, the second – and far more predictable – outcome of his unexpected maneuver.
The guard was trained in the use of firearms, on his feet, and using his own gun; Abyssinian, for all that he’d initially had the element of surprise, was on the ground at a distinct disadvantage, and not used to using a gun at all. He was, however, nothing if not resourceful. A muffled retort sounded, followed by the soft heavy sound of a body dropping to the floor. Abyssinian smirked, and Siberian finally worked himself free.
“You threw it at him,” he said, staring at Abyssinian. “Of all the...”
Abyssinian climbed to his feet and extended a hand to his teammate. Siberian wavered a little, but he made it upright. “Hang on,” he said, and picked up the handgun from where it had clattered to the ground. He tucked it into his waistband, hands moving over it in practiced familiarity, and Abyssinian frowned. When had Siberian started training with guns, he wondered, but that was a question to be asked when they had managed to escape their current predicament.
“Let’s get out of here,” was all he said.
Abyssinian led the way down the corridor at a dead run, knowing they had no idea where they were or what the layout of the building might have been. The window in the cell might have indicated they were above ground, unless it was artificial light behind glass and not a window. Air vents were visible at the end of the corridor, where it became a t-intersection, and the ceiling was low enough that Siberian could balance on Abyssinian to reach and open it. Abyssinian could hear his fingers fumbling and held back the urge to hiss at him to hurry.
Siberian’s weight vanished from Abyssinian’s shoulders and Abyssinian looked up to see his feet vanish into the ceiling. His head reappeared almost instantly, and he extended a hand down. Abyssinian glanced around – no one visible yet – and he jumped. Siberian pulled him upwards and reached past Abyssinian to pull the vent closed just as Abyssinian heard booted feet pounding down the hall. Siberian held perfectly still until they passed, and then wedged the vent grate closed.
“I think they noticed,” he whispered.
Abyssinian grimaced at him. “This way,” he said, picking a direction at random. There was barely enough room for him to turn around and wriggle forward; Siberian’s broader shoulders would have had trouble performing the same action, and the hulking guards wouldn’t have fit at all. Abyssinian smirked, just slightly, before he felt the expression and willed it away.
The vague idea Abyssinian had was to move upwards, until they reached the roof or at least a vantage point that would give them some information about where they were. He’d thought about heading down to ground level or below, but he expected the majority of the armed response to focus on the theoretical easiest route out of the building, and he wanted information. Siberian simply followed him, moving quietly and efficiently for all that Abyssinian could hear his breathing becoming more labored the farther they went.
The roof was closer than Abyssinian had hoped; either they’d been on an upper floor or the building didn’t have that many floors. The daylight filtering down was bright and welcoming, and he balanced for several seconds, wedged in the vertical shaft and looking through the grate for any sign of human presence. He couldn’t see anything, but his field of vision was extremely limited. He couldn’t hear anything, either, but the roof was smooth and wouldn’t necessarily be difficult to walk around silently. Nothing for it, he thought, and pushed the grate aside. It fell to the ground with a loud noise, and Abyssinian winced. He’d meant to catch it.
Boots on the ground, so to speak, Abyssinian turned around and hauled Siberian out of the shaft. He’d gone pale again, covered in sweat and breathing hard. “You need help,” Abyssinian muttered, when Siberian simply leaned against him instead of cursing that he didn’t need an assist.
“Fuck,” Siberian muttered, but eventually his breathing slowed.
Abyssinian looked around, over-bright light washing out his vision. He had an impression of blue-white skies and grayish green surrounding them, and he heard the distinct noise of a highway off to one side, but around the building itself was relative quiet. They weren’t more than three or four stories off the ground, and Abyssinian nodded quietly to himself. He would have expected a fence or a wall, barbed wire on top, guard towers – something to show that the building they were in was technically a prison, but there was none of it. Except for the highway, the building was surrounded by wilderness, and Abyssinian was fairly sure the eastern half of the United States was short on uncharted areas. Not New Jersey, then, he thought, but the highway would give them a direction from which to escape.
“Down the fire escape,” he started to say, looking back at Siberian.
Siberian’s eyes widened and he started to pull away to stand upright.
“What?” Abyssinian started to say, already knowing what was wrong. He tried to turn to face whatever threat Siberian saw coming, but he didn’t have time to see more than the blurred impression of a suit and a fist before an impact sent him crashing downwards. He heard Siberian swearing in English and felt Siberian’s weight sprawled across his chest before the world around him turned fuzzy and indistinct.
The light changed, growing dimmer and flatter, flashes at intervals reaching into his skull and poking at the inside of his head. Abyssinian’s limbs moved without his direction, and the sound around him was echoing and distorted. He tried to speak, but he didn’t think what came out was actually words. He couldn’t hear himself at all. The ground and sky spun dizzyingly for a nauseating moment and he finally came to a halt. Gravity pressed against his chest and face and he groaned.
“Abyssinian?” That was Siberian’s voice, relatively clear, but Abyssinian couldn’t quite place it spatially. The ceiling was crushing him and there was no floor; he’d broken free of the Earth and only the roof was keeping him from flying off. He felt Siberian’s warm hand start to turn him over and panicked; he was going to fall, if Siberian kept mucking around with his center of gravity.
The earth reoriented itself with a lurch, gravity pushing on his stomach, and Abyssinian clamped his mouth closed. Gravity only pushed harder, the sick feeling in his throat rippling outwards, and Abyssinian tried to reach upwards to shove it back. He felt movement again, disorientation and it was too much. He lost control entirely, heaving the meager contents of his stomach onto whatever was in front of him. When the spinning sensation faded enough for him to open his eyes, the wavery gray lines resolved themselves into a toilet in a corner, gleaming unbreakable metal spattered with bile.
“Come on, Aya, you’re okay,” Siberian said, rubbing his back soothingly. His voice had a catch in it Abyssinian didn’t like, when it registered over the fading nausea. He swallowed convulsively, the sour taste in his mouth nearly bringing itself right back up, and he pushed it back down.
“Don’t call me that,” he said. “Of course I’m fine.”
“You are,” Siberian said, and Abyssinian actually did feel better. He climbed to his feet, dizziness subsiding. The light from the high windows was still bright, and he turned to look at Siberian instead.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Same place we were before?” Siberian levered himself away from the wall. “I can’t tell.”
The room looked the same, albeit with fewer bodies on the floor. Abyssinian didn’t think they’d made anyone bleed, but if they had, there was no sign of it. He stepped away from Siberian, pausing when turning made his head spin a little, and then shaking off Siberian’s attempt at a helping hand. Neither of them were in particularly good condition, but Abyssinian was willing to bet he was still doing better than his teammate. He reached up, putting a cautious hand on his forehead and wincing at the tenderness. A nasty bruise, if he was lucky, and a cracked skull if he wasn’t.
“Stop touching it,” Siberian said, and Abyssinian wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up. The uncharacteristic urge surprised him enough that it didn’t make it past his tongue, and the burst of irritation faded.
“I might be concussed,” he said.
“Might be,” Siberian agreed easily, and Abyssinian couldn’t tell if he was being humored or not. That he’d been hit hard enough to alter his level of consciousness was a fairly good indication that he was concussed, a fact that all of them had experience with, but Siberian didn’t have to condescend to him.
“Did you see who was on the roof?” he asked instead, moving across the cell to sit on the bench that he still thought was supposed to be a bed. It was the only one, and there was nothing on top of it, nothing to make it more than a narrow horizontal platform jutting out from the wall. He sat down, carefully. His head felt like it might float away, but that wasn’t why he wasn’t standing.
After a moment, Siberian joined him, and that was why Abyssinian was pretending to rest. Siberian needed it more than he did, but his pride and sense of duty wouldn’t let him show it. “It looked like the same guys who were down here,” he said, and Abyssinian was confused for a moment before he remembered asking Siberian a question.
“Same outfits, you mean?” he asked, and Siberian shot him a worried look.
“Same outfit,” he said, which was a subtle distinction. “Whoever they are, they’re put together way better than the Chief’s group.”
“That’s great.” Abyssinian reached toward the bruise again, and Siberian caught his hand.
“They looked surprised, like they didn’t think we were going to be up on the roof,” Siberian said.
“So we had bad luck.” Abyssinian glanced toward the door. It had no bars to the outside, no visibility of the corridor, and that told him they were in a different cell. It also told him there were multiple levels of security in this relatively small building. What that implied, he wasn’t sure. His aching head wouldn’t let him think.
Siberian leaned against him, tucking his face into Abyssinian’s neck. Abyssinian automatically wrapped an arm around him before he blinked. Now was not the time, and he thought Balinese had expressed worry about Siberian’s changing and specific attachment to Bombay.
“There’s more than one camera in this one,” Siberian mumbled into his skin.
Abyssinian swore quietly and pulled Siberian a little closer. He’d forgotten about the cameras entirely, and he didn’t want to be obvious about looking for them now. “Where?” he asked.
“Both in the corner above the head,” Siberian said, and Abyssinian couldn’t stop himself from looking over. The lenses gleamed in the light, and he stood. “The fuck,” Siberian said, and tried to pull Abyssinian back down.
Abyssinian flushed the head, watching the bile circle down the drain, and crossed the room again. He couldn’t see the telltale gleam of any other lenses in the walls, but that meant nothing. He sat on the bench again, surprisingly worn out for such a short trip, and let Siberian lean into him again as if for warmth. It was cold, in the cell. “That might be all of them,” he said into Siberian’s hair.
“I told you,” Siberian said.
Abyssinian couldn’t have said how long they sat there, leaning on each other. The light in the windows faded, implying that they were actually windows, but no one showed up to open the door. The temperature seemed to drop even further, and he shivered. Siberian didn’t seem cold at all, putting out heat like a furnace, and Abyssinian was glad of the warmth.
“You okay?” he asked, after in indeterminable amount of time had passed, and Abyssinian blinked. He was wedged between Siberian and the wall, on the narrow shelf, and lying down instead of the seated position he remembered. Siberian’s pallor had given way to spots of color, high on his cheeks, and he was shivering despite the heat rolling off of him in waves.
“You’re not,” he said, and sat up.
The movement produced no disorientation, and Abyssinian’s head felt clear for the first time since he’d walked into the distribution center who knew how long ago. The windows overhead were bright, brighter than they had been the day before, and Abyssinian thought that might mean they were facing east. He filed the information away, in case it was useful, and turned his attention to Siberian.
Whatever Abyssinian might have said was interrupted by a flap on the door near the ground opening and the scraping noise of a tray being shoved through. It held two dishes filled with some sort of paste and two bottles of what looked like water. Nothing had a label. The dishes were waxy paper, the bottles flimsy plastic, and there was no silverware.
“Hospitable,” Siberian said, his eyes following Abyssinian’s gaze. “Really know how to treat a guest.”
“Might be they don’t appreciate our trying to escape their hospitality,” Abyssinian said, trying to make him smile.
“Yeah, well, their hospitality sucks.” Siberian curled himself into a ball, shivering harder. “They could at least keep it warm in here.”
Abyssinian touched Siberian’s face with the back of his hand, knowing what he was going to find but needing to confirm it anyway. “It’s not cold. You’re running a temperature.”
“Then why the fuck am I so cold, if I’m hot,” Siberian said, the distinct edge of a whine to his voice.
“You know why,” Abyssinian told him. “Sit up.” He retrieved the tray, glaring at Siberian until he complied, even if Siberian was still curled as much into a ball as he could manage while sitting upright. “Eat,” Abyssinian told him.
“I’m not hungry. You can have it.” Siberian scooted backwards until he was leaning against the wall, coincidentally as far from the tray as he could manage while still staying on the narrow platform. Abyssinian bit back a sigh.
“I’m not playing this game with you,” he said. “I don’t have the resources to coddle you into doing what you need to do.”
Siberian cracked an eye open at that, glaring, and reached out for the bottle of water. “Give me a minute,” was what he said. Abyssinian inspected the other bottle, while Siberian watched, smelling and then tasting the contents. It seemed like water, and only water, and it wasn’t as though he had much of a choice.
The single bottle let him know just how thirsty he was, and it was gone almost before Abyssinian registered the fact that he was drinking it at all. Siberian followed suit, more slowly, putting his bottle down before he was more than halfway finished with it. Abyssinian, despite his words, catalogued Siberian’s actions. He was going to have to compensate for his teammate, if they got another chance to break free, and take care of him if they didn’t.
Time passed slowly, or quickly, or not at all; Abyssinian had no way of tracking it, other than the light from the window. No one came to speak to them, there was no sound from the hallway outside. Only the gleam of the camera lenses in the corner told him that anyone might be paying attention to them at all, the edge of a red glimmer betraying the power feeding into the mechanisms. The smell of smoke still clinging to his clothes was enough to make him feel almost nauseous, but the only place that might let him wash the significantly worse-for-the-wear clothing was the tiny sink above the toilet in the corner.
Abyssinian put it temporarily out of his mind and started one of the earliest stretching routines he’d learned when Kritiker had picked him up as a teenager. He could feel the stiffness in his muscles start to melt away, under the once-familiar routine, and he moved from the stretching to calisthenics from the same time period. If their watchers wanted a show, he’d give them a show. Siberian remained huddled in a ball throughout most of Abyssinian’s routine, conditioned unchanged as far as Abyssinian could tell, although he might have been coughing more often. It was hard to say.
“You smell like sweat,” Siberian muttered when Abyssinian dropped down next to him after one of his sessions.
“You haven’t eaten,” Abyssinian reminded him, although the paste – not particularly palatable when warm – had all of the appeal of sticky glue.
Siberian shook his head. “Nauseous,” he said.
“Try.” Abyssinian rubbed his back carefully, and Siberian cracked an eye open to glare at him half-heartedly.
“You’re a terrible friend,” he said, but he got through half the paste before shoving the bowl away. “I didn’t miss anyone coming in here, did I?” he asked, now leaning against the wall and more or less upright.
“No,” Abyssinian said.
“This is bullshit.” Siberian pulled at his shirt as if it had offended him somehow, and switched his glare to the door. “What the fuck do you want?” he snarled, but there was very little strength to the words. He dropped his head to rest on his arms, folded on his knees. “Such bullshit,” he said again.
The second night went much like the first, although Abyssinian waited until the lights had dimmed somewhat before attempting to wash his clothing in the sink. He put it back on, still damp, feeling it cling uncomfortably to his skin. The wet denim chafed, but it was at least a little warmer than wearing nothing, and he felt better for being at least somewhat clean. He slept crosslegged on the floor, leaving the narrow platform to Siberian.
Morning seemed as though it came too early, bright light shining in his eyes and the sound of the door scraping open. Abyssinian scrambled to his feet, hating that he’d lost control of the situation he hadn’t known he was even in, and did his best not to look like a shivering and huddled prisoner. He suspected he wasn’t particularly successful. He couldn’t decide whether Siberian, sleeping through the commotion entirely, helped or hindered him in his attempts, but there was no time to do anything about it either way. The door opened fully, showing a hallway much like the one Abyssinian had seen before and a silhouette on the threshold.
The man with the smirk had returned, accompanied by four bodyguards. None of them were the same bodyguards Siberian had subdued, Abyssinian noted, and the man had no marks across his skin to show where Abyssinian had struck him two days before. He was wearing makeup, Abyssinian realized after a moment, skillfully applied to mask the bruising. Abyssinian felt a small rush of satisfaction.
“You were supposed to go to another branch,” the man said, a sour twist to his mouth as if the words themselves were unpalatable. “Terrorists, going where you should have gone. But you’ll stay here, instead.”
There was no question in the man’s flood of words, and Abyssinian felt no need to respond to any of it. He was fairly sure, after the months in New York, that he had a solid enough grasp on his English comprehension to follow. He kept his eyes on the man, gaze as calm as he could keep it. There was some small hope that he and Siberian could escape, if they weren’t going to be moved, and he already knew at least a little about where they were.
“You’ll be questioned here,” the man continued, when it became clear that Abyssinian had nothing to say to him. He adjusted his cuffs, standing just inside the door. “We’re not inhumane. Once a day, you’ll both be given access to the facilities.” If you cooperate, he did not say out loud. Abyssinian felt his mouth flatten into a line. “Should you try to escape again, we will cripple one of you.”
There was no doubt in Abyssinian’s mind that the man meant every word he said, and whether or not it was representative of the instructions he’d actually gotten, someone else getting punished after the damage was already done to Abyssinian – or Siberian – wouldn’t help. Abyssinian tilted his chin up just a little, continuing to stare at the man. The smirk faltered just a little, in the face of Abyssinian’s refusal to react.
“If you attempt to escape a third time,” the man said, “we will kill one of you. No one knows where you are. Your government does not know where you are. Your country has abandoned you, like the terrorists that you are.”
Nothing that the man said was, strictly speaking, inaccurate; Abyssinian knew perfectly well that Weiß wasn’t going to come for them. Even if Bombay could have hacked into the security system – and it was electronic; short of being an entirely closed system, it was nothing Bombay couldn’t handle – there was no way Kritiker would allow it. Abyssinian blinked, at the thought, which was the first he had allowed himself regarding rescue. There could be no rescue.
Kritiker and its work were too important to risk for a couple of agents too clumsy to get themselves caught and then fail to perform their own extraction. He and Siberian were on their own. His gaze flicked over to his partner of its own accord, and the man’s eyes followed. The two of them working together might have been able to handle all five men, but Abyssinian alone couldn’t do it, and then haul Siberian out of the facility. The four men grouped behind the man with the smirk moved in a way that said they hadn’t been trained quite as well as Abyssinian and Siberian, and that was more information to file away for when it would be useful.
“Did you want something?” Abyssinian said, when the man continued to watch him.
The man’s eyebrows lowered, giving him the first dangerous expression Abyssinian had seen him wear. “You’re coming with me,” he said. “Remember what I said.”
Abyssinian thought that Balinese might have taunted the man by giving him the most dead-pan expression in his repertoire followed by a claim not to understand English. Abyssinian wasn’t Balinese. “You’ll find my chances of cooperating higher if my companion receives medical attention,” he said, switching to Japanese and not moving.
“I told you not to resist,” the man said, and gestured for the bodyguards. Abyssinian turned with the incoming blow, not resisting and letting some of the momentum bleed itself off. Enough of it remained to bruise his ribs, and the air rushed out of him. It took several seconds to unlock his chest enough to breathe, and he was on one knee when he regained control. He glared up at the man with the smirk and allowed a pair of the bodyguards to lift him to his feet and drag him out of the cell.
The semblance of cooperation would have to be enough, both for Abyssinian and for their captors, until he could come up with a better plan.
No part of the interrogation that followed was conducive to coming up with a better plan, for all that no one laid a physical hand on Abyssinian. He was strapped into a chair, bright lights shining in his eyes, subjected to heat and cold and the occasional splash of freezing water. Sometimes there were questions, sometimes there weren’t. Abyssinian kept his mouth shut, when it came to what was important, and told them nothing. By the time the bodyguards dragged him back to the cell, he needed the support, muscles shaking in protest and the sensation of pins and needles overwhelming his hands and feet.
The narrow cell almost looked welcoming, with its dim light and relative peace, and Abyssinian gritted his teeth. Siberian was still huddled in the corner, although he’d put the paper dishes and the one empty water bottle near the door. Abyssinian hit the ground with his elbows and knees, protecting his hands and face, and the door slammed shut behind him. He was beginning to doubt this group was officially part of any federal organization, no matter what the men questioning him had claimed.
“Not going to happen,” Siberian muttered, and Abyssinian flexed his fingers and toes. He finally had enough feeling back to feel the ground beneath his feet, when he stood, and he made his way over to the narrow ledge.
“Siberian,” he said softly.
“No way to get out of here,” Siberian said. “Easier to win a staring contest with the wall.”
Abyssinian reached out, intending to see if Siberian’s fever had gotten worse, and the other man flinched backwards hard enough to knock his head against the wall. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Separated, no good,” Siberian said, and his throat worked as if he were trying to swallow. Abyssinian groped for the second water bottle; he’d seen it near Siberian, and it crinkled under his hands. He uncapped it and held it out, but Siberian wasn’t looking at him or it. Abyssinian tried putting it in Siberian’s hand, but his teammate’s fingers just slid right off. Abyssinian glanced directly at the cameras in the corner and frowned before holding up the bottle and tilting a little water into Siberian’s mouth.
“Swallow it,” he said, and Siberian followed instructions.
“Mr. Angst,” Siberian said, turning away from the lip of the bottle when Abyssinian tried to get him to drink again. “Just lets them drag him off.”
Abyssinian blinked, stunned for a moment by the revelation that Siberian apparently had no idea who he was, and also that Siberian was referring to him by a ridiculous nickname. “Siberian, I’m right here,” he said. “I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“I didn’t tell her anything,” Siberian said. “Didn’t say anything.”
“I know you didn’t.” Abyssinian held up the bottle again, but Siberian closed his mouth stubbornly. “Ken, drink it,” he said, even more softly.
“Not my name,” Siberian said. “Didn’t tell her my name. Didn’t tell her your name. Didn’t tell her anything. She said it wouldn’t bruise, but it hurt like hell when she hit me.” His eyes glittered in the low lighting, and he looked directly at Abyssinian for the first time. “Wanted to know who I worked for.” His breathing was harsh and ragged, and too quick. Abyssinian could feel the heat still pouring off of him, and he didn’t like it.
“We don’t work for anyone,” Abyssinian said.
Siberian started shaking, and it took Abyssinian several seconds to realize that he was laughing. “We don’t work for anyone,” he repeated. “That’s what I told her. We don’t work for anyone.”
“You did well,” Abyssinian told him, and Siberian’s eyes drifted shut again. He mumbled something incoherent, voice trailing off into silence.
Abyssinian glanced around the cell and then stood, deliberately pacing the few steps until he was facing the corner holding both cameras. “He needs help,” he said. “I won’t give you what you want unless you help him.”
There was no answer, and Abyssinian hadn’t expected one.
The questions continued, the following day, blending into a haze until Abyssinian was so exhausted his limbs felt as though they were weighted down and his eyes kept trying to slide shut. Every time they did, cold water splashed him or jarring noises jolted him awake again. The man with the smirk was replaced by a woman wearing an almost identical suit, right down to the tie knotted impeccably at her throat. Abyssinian frowned; he was sure he’d been questioned by a man.
“Abyssinian,” she said, in accented Japanese. Or maybe it was supposed to be English; it was hard to tell, with just a name. She spoke in Japanese, when she continued, though. Abyssinian gritted his teeth. “Very nice,” she said. Her pale hair was pulled severely back from her face, doing her no favors, and bound into a knot.
“Who are you?” Abyssinian asked.
“Oh, very good,” she said. “Siberian didn’t ask me that question. Not doing too well, though, is he.”
“What did you do to him?” The words spilled out and Abyssinian found himself trying to reach toward his interrogator, shake the answers out of her. The knots holding his arms bound behind him brought him up short.
“He’ll be fine,” the woman said dismissively. “Or he won’t.” She paused. “Didn’t really ask me any questions, though, too busy trying to breathe.”
“Help him, or I won’t help you,” Abyssinian snarled.
“Is that it?” The woman tilted her head to the side. “Is that the point?” She wasn’t using the word correctly, and Abyssinian had no idea what she was trying to say. Irritation flashed across her face. “It doesn’t matter. If he isn’t useful, we still have you.”
“You won’t have me, if he dies,” Abyssinian said. “Who are you?”
“I think that I ask the questions here, not you,” the woman said. She leaned forward and slapped him with an open palm. Pain rippled out from her touch, stunning in its intensity, and Abyssinian momentarily forgot how to breathe. When his vision cleared, he felt completely awake, prickling reminders seeping along his cheek.
Abyssinian didn’t answer her questions, sticking to his mantra: if she didn’t help Siberian, he wasn’t going to tell her anything. It brought him more pain, and he welcomed it. Better that than to betray Weiß; he couldn’t find it in himself any more to care so much about hanging Kritiker out to dry, but that would leave Weiß exposed, and he wouldn’t do that to what was left of the team. He couldn’t.
Again, he was dragged back toward the cell and thrown into it. It was darker, this time, but he could make out Siberian’s form huddled on the bench. Something about it looked wrong, and Abyssinian took several seconds to reconcile the visual input with objects in his experience. Siberian’s mission gear was gone, and he was dressed in a soft gray shirt. The narrow bench had been covered with something that might have been softer than the concrete, and Siberian was tucked under a thin blanket.
“She did what I asked,” Abyssinian said, heaving himself to his feet and staggering the short distance. Siberian shifted, at the sound, and opened his eyes.
“Aya?” he said. His voice sounded better, less hoarse.
“Yes?” Abyssinian’s legs chose that moment to give out, and he sat down abruptly, leaning against the platform. It put him at eye level with his teammate.
“Good.” The relief in Siberian’s voice was nearly palpable. “There was someone else here.”
“I know,” Abyssinian told him. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Are you all right?” Siberian was frowning at him, as if Abyssinian was the one that needed to be looked after. Abyssinian tried to glare at him.
“Yes,” he repeated shortly. “Go to sleep.”
For a moment, Abyssinian thought Siberian had followed instructions without complaining for once, but his eyes opened again and he looked through Abyssinian instead of at him. “We’re never going to get out of here,” he said, almost too quietly to hear. “Are we.”
It wasn’t a question. Abyssinian bit his lip. “We will,” he said. He didn’t have anything resembling a plan, but it was only a matter of time. Once Siberian was better, the two of them would be able to make a break for freedom.
Siberian surprised him by laughing, a shallow and almost inaudible sound that dissolved into a spate of coughing. “You’re usually right, Aya,” he said, when it was over. “But when you’re wrong, you’re way off the mark.”
“What do you mean?” Abyssinian couldn’t follow the word games, not with the cloudy fuzz trying to creep into his brain from the outside. It had already pinned his limbs down, but he was trying to hold a conversation, and it was incredibly impolite of his surroundings to interfere with it.
“Nothing,” Siberian said. “You should rest, too.” He shifted, and winced. “Ow,” he said, and Abyssinian blinked.
“Siberian,” he started.
“You know, Aya, I never said I was sorry for hitting you when we first met.”
The incident was so far back in the past that it was nearly irretrievable, and Abyssinian frowned when he finally dredged it out of the depths of memory. Siberian had decked him, failing to apologize when the man he’d hit had been introduced as his new teammate. It had been a rocky start, for Weiß, but Abyssinian had always thought it told him exactly what he’d gotten himself into.
Siberian wasn’t quite finished talking. “I, uh. I’m sorry,” he said.
“Why?” Abyssinian hurt, but he didn’t want to move. He stretched his limbs out anyway, and it didn’t help.
“For fuck’s sake, Aya, I need a reason to apologize for hitting you? What the hell?” Siberian sat up, unwashed hair sticking flat to one side of his head and poking out in spikes on the other. He looked ridiculous. Abyssinian was struck with the urge to laugh, and pushed it back down.
“I meant, why now,” he said, when he’d wrestled the impulse back under control.
Siberian shrugged, now not willing to look at him. “I was just thinking,” Siberian said. “About. Um. And.” His fingers twisted in the blanket, and Abyssinian’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see the blush of fever still in Siberian’s face.
“The mission hasn’t been completed,” he said, sitting up straighter.
“I know,” Siberian said, shoulders dropping. “My cyanide is gone. I checked. It was gone before they took my clothes. But -”
“Ken.” He was too close to the ground; it was no good. Abyssinian pushed himself to his feet, and Siberian yanked him to sit on the bench in the brief instant before his balance sorted itself out. Abyssinian hit it with a thud, and it took a second for his head to clear. “Ken,” he said again. “This mission is to return.”
“Aya,” Siberian said, and he was arguing. The temerity.
“Do. You. Understand,” Abyssinian repeated.
“Okay, Aya.” Siberian sounded more like he was humoring Abyssinian than agreeing, but Abyssinian would take what he could get. Siberian’s soft “I want to go home” twisted at the inside of his chest, and he didn’t respond to it.
The door swung open, the light from the hallway piercing and bright. It smelled musty, and Abyssinian had a moment’s confusion before the impression settled itself and he accepted it without question. A silhouette was visible through the painful glare.
“Touching,” commented a familiar voice, and Abyssinian was on his feet between Siberian and the interrogator before he thought about it. “I’m not here for you,” she said, and took his face in one gloved hand. Her fingertips were sharp, even through the gloves, and she stood at the very edge of arm’s length. Abyssinian dove for her. He couldn’t protect Siberian if she took him away. His interrogator sighed and stepped out of the way, catching Abyssinian’s clumsy lunge and slinging him sideways into the wall. Abyssinian hit hard and slid down, barely hearing the set of guards scuffling with Siberian.
“Stop it! Leave him alone!”
Siberian was trying to protect him, Abyssinian realized, thoughts moving slow like honey. He dragged himself upright again, but the door slammed shut before he could reach it and the lights flickered out to leave him alone in the dark. The soft hissing of the vents faded, and he could hear Siberian screaming through the walls. Abyssinian rested his head on his knees and tried to push away the sense of despair, hands over his ears to block out the sounds he couldn’t stop. None of it helped. Siberian’s voice echoed along the walls in shades of crimson, and Abyssinian had nothing left to give.
Chapter 8: Retrieval
Yohji leaned over Omi’s shoulder. “This is taking you way too long.”
“Get shot in the gut, see how you feel,” Omi retorted, and Yohji backed away. Omi had done remarkably well, all things considered; he’d been discharged after four days in the facility Birman had dumped the both of them in, and he’d cooperated with the sheaf of instructions Yohji had received from a strict and worried staff member trying to explain to both of them what needed to be done to keep Omi healthy after he went home. Home, Yohji had thought, but he’d paid attention.
Their new temporary base of operations was a small hotel, relatively clean and relatively quiet and with staff who respected the Do Not Disturb sign on the door as long as the bill was paid, in yet another state. Yohji was more or less sure their current location was Maryland; he was absolutely sure the two of them were more conspicuous than he was comfortable with, and even if Omi was doing well, he was still easily exhausted and frequently in pain and Yohji couldn’t help.
Three days into their stay in the hotel and Yohji felt entirely useless. He couldn’t employ most his usual avenues of gathering information, not in this unfamiliar environment and not this far away from the incident they were trying to investigate. It was almost entirely up to Omi, except for the telephone calls that required dissembling and half-truths, and even then Yohji’s language skills weren’t entirely up to par.
“I just hate this,” Yohji said, striding across the room to stare out the window. The blinds were closed and tilted to prevent potential passersby from looking in, which meant that all he could see was the gray sky.
“I want them back,” Omi said. “And I can’t do this with you distracting me. Could you please go outside? Something?”
Yohji turned to look at him; Omi had the pinched set to his mouth that meant he was in pain, but he wouldn’t take painkillers where Yohji could see him do it. Yohji made himself smile. “I need a smoke,” he said, as if Omi hadn’t asked for privacy. “You need anything?”
“Tea, please,” Omi said. “If you can find anything good.”
They both knew whatever Yohji could find within walking distance of the hotel wouldn’t be anything remotely palatable, because it wasn’t from home, but Yohji nodded. “I can do that,” he said. The early September air was cool enough that he pulled on a jacket before leaving the room, patting his pocket to make sure both the keys and his cigarettes were in it.
The street had what passed for a sidewalk next to it, the area more friendly to pedestrians than some others Yohji had seen, and traffic moved slowly along it. The red taillights passed in strings, separating out as they came near and linking together in the distance, the white headlights a counterpoint in the other direction. There wasn’t much of a difference in cities the world over, Yohji supposed, or at least not on the surface. Superficial similarities hiding deeper differences hiding the truth that humanity was, at its core, linked across the world.
Yohji shook his head. Omi had been able to track the initial police reports from the fire in New Jersey, and confirmed that Ken and Aya had not been picked up by the local first responder crews. They’d been collected by one of the federal agencies, the one that had had an agent on the scene. The agent that Ken had killed, trying to free Aya; Yohji was sure that Ken hadn’t known. It might, Yohji thought, not have mattered even if Ken had known, but he thought Ken was still holding it together enough that he wouldn’t have passed judgment on a target who was doing what amounted to the same job as Weiß.
Which agency it was, Yohji could never remember; there were too many, all with pat little strings of letters and acronyms standing for words with which Yohji was unfamiliar. He knew he should put in the effort to remember and care and learn enough about the objective to rescue his teammates, but it ultimately didn’t matter as much as where they were being held and how he could get them out. Yohji drew in the bitter smoke, holding it in his lungs and then releasing it.
Shouldn’t do that, he heard Ken’s voice say, a memory from years before. It’ll kill you. Yohji had retorted that being part of Weiß would kill him long before smoking ever did, but it hadn’t happened yet. Omi might have told him that his field efficiency could be affected by reduced lung capacity, but Omi trusted Yohji to hold his own and pull his weight during assignments. Aya wouldn’t have – and never did – say anything, holding himself apart, even after years of Weiß living and working together.
“I’ll smoke if I want to, Ken,” Yohji murmured, letting the acrid white flow out with the words. The shop Omi almost liked wasn’t far away, and it had outdoor seating. Yohji got himself a cup of coffee, electing to watch traffic and pedestrians instead of continuing to wander, and when he thought enough time had passed, he bought Omi a cup of tea and made his way back to the hotel.
Omi met him at the door, almost dancing in anticipation. “What took you so long?”
Yohji bit down on the automatic response and handed Omi the tea instead. “What did you find?” he asked, instead of pointing out that Omi was the one who had asked him to leave.
“I know where they are,” Omi said.
Yohji waited, but Omi just looked at him expectantly. “Where?” he asked finally.
“Colorado.” Omi pointed to the computer screen with a flourish, not that it told Yohji anything. It was full of lines of English, and he didn’t have the patience to decode any of it.
“Just tell me, Omi,” he said.
Whatever agency it was that was holding the other half of Weiß – and Yohji still couldn’t get the string of letters to stick in his head – had fabricated paperwork, and attempted to make them disappear. Yohji blinked. “How the fuck did you figure that out?” he asked.
Omi stared at him, deflated. “How much detail do you want?” he asked.
Yohji put his hands up in surrender. “Okay. Okay.”
“I got lucky,” Omi said, looking away. “The tracker we followed the first time wasn’t detected. It’s not active now, but it gave me a place to start.” He pointed at the map. “This is an off-site location. As far as I can tell. See the satellite images?”
“Fabulous,” he said. “So now what?”
“Now we change cities, because they know where we are.”
Yohji had failed to notice that Omi had packed up their few belongings, with the sole exception of the laptop sitting open on the table, and now that Omi had made his explanation, the laptop was closed and being shoved into its case.
“Now, Yohji,” Omi said.
The local bus station wasn’t far, and Yohji thought he heard sirens as the bus pulled away. He and Omi were on another bus headed west within the hour, as free and clear as they were going to be, and Omi had the laptop open to show him the information he’d gotten.
“We go in. We come out. The only road leads to an Air Force base – well, less of a base than a training post, but still, it means almost no traffic.” Omi wasn’t happy about that. “So we go in at night, no lights.”
“Right.” Yohji settled in beside him and planning the mission was something he could do. Here was familiarity, here was the end of the useless feeling that had plagued him for days. He glanced worriedly at Omi, not sure what strenuous activity might mean for the still-healing wound on Omi’s side, but he trusted Omi to know his own limits.
They slept on the bus, and woke, and arrived at their final destination strained almost to the point of breaking. Yohji took it on himself to rent the quietest car they could find, still a few hours out from the road that would lead them to Weiß, and argued Omi into staying at a hotel before they set off.
“It’s still light out.” Yohji pointed dramatically at the morning sun. “There’s no sense in waiting longer there.”
“But -” Omi said, and eventually Yohji wore him down.
Omi slept through most of the day in the hotel, which Yohji felt vindicated his judgment. Yohji himself slept as much as he could, trying to clear his head before the lunacy they were about to attempt. He sent Manx a copy of their plans on a whim, after checking into the hotel, and got nothing in reply. He hadn’t been expecting anything, but hearing good luck from their long-time handler might have been nice.
The sun was setting when they got out of the city, and Yohji stopped the car briefly to spatter mud across the license plates. None of the identifying information they’d given out at any of their stops had been accurate, but any and every layer of obfuscation – however flimsy – gave them a little more of an edge, and he figured they needed all the help they could get. The wind blew heavy with the scent of rain, but nothing fell. Yohji kept the windows closed, an unlit cigarette held between two fingers, losing bits and pieces of itself as he tapped it against the steering wheel.
“How close?” he asked.
“Not far,” Omi said.
The restricted area around the military base ran up against a national park, the compound for which they were aiming forming a third point on a flattened triangle. The only other landmark was a private airport, its narrow landing strip surprisingly long for a shed in the middle of nowhere, and it had been the first choice for their approach. The security system apparently in place made it not worth the effort, and Omi directed Yohji through the park instead, along a probable service road. Yohji hoped the impending rainstorm meant no one would come investigate if their car was heard, and he had to move slowly to keep the vehicle from missing the gravel track passing itself off as a street.
“Left,” Omi said, and Yohji tucked the car into a small clearing. With any luck, it would remain undiscovered. He slipped outside, glancing at the overcast sky. “You know which way to go?” Omi asked.
Yohji resisted the urge to glare and took the lead through the trees. The tricky part was figuring out where they were going, and then figuring out how to get back again without getting lost; the stars would have helped, but Yohji’s sense of direction and a compass were going to have to do. “This way,” he said, and Omi barely even looked up from the dimly lit screen he was still carrying.
The compound was just barely visible, when Omi vanished from behind Yohji; he’d dropped to the ground and was furiously tapping away at the laptop.
“Well?” Yohji said, after a few moments.
“This takes time,” Omi hissed back. “I have to disable their security systems and reroute them, and I’m not going to be here to keep an eye on it.”
“I can -” Yohji said.
“No, you won’t.” Omi reached out without looking away from the screen and slapped Yohji across the back of the leg. “I’m the only backup you have tonight. You’re not going in there with zero backup at all.”
“What if they counter whatever you just did?” Yohji asked.
“If we’re lucky, no one is expecting anything.” Both of Omi’s hands were on the keyboard again. “Hallways, passcodes, cameras. Air vents. Systems are spoofed, cameras are on a loop.”
“Do you know where in the building they are?” Yohji asked.
“I know where Ken is,” Omi said. “I can’t find Aya. He’s not in the cell he’s supposed to be in.”
“So we’ll look.” Yohji tried a smile. It felt wrong, so he stopped.
“This isn’t -” Omi looked up, hands stilling. “This is an off-site location,” he said; Yohji had heard him say it earlier, and he hadn’t asked what Omi had meant.
“What does that mean for us?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” Omi raked his hands through his hair. “It might mean – it’s not – there are rules, usually, about what you do with people in federal custody, and then there are the people who pretend not to exist, and they’re different.”
“You think they’re torturing them?” Yohji asked. “We should be prepared for… for what?”
“I don’t know,” Omi said. “Just. We have to get them out of there.”
“Hey, it’s an office building, not a prison,” Yohji said. There were no barbed-wire fences, no high walls. He wouldn’t have thought it was anything other than a white-collar complex, if he’d driven past the building in broad daylight, at least not if it was in the middle of a city instead of tucked halfway in to the mountains next to a whole mess of nothing.
“You say that, but you didn’t see the security they were running,” Omi said. “Follow my lead. It’s the only way we get in or out.”
“Got it,” Balinese said. Bombay was the field leader, in Abyssinian’s absence, on top of being Weiß’ leader overall. It wasn’t a system that worked well with any of the other teams Kritiker fielded or tried to field; putting the team leader under the nominal field leader’s command during assignments led to friction. Not with Bombay and Abyssinian, though, the two of them worked together like a well-oiled machine. Balinese followed as Bombay slipped across the grass in a pattern and fetched up against a ground floor window.
“This one,” Bombay said, and Balinese pried it open. He slipped inside, silently, eyes adjusting to the dimly lit room.
“Clear,” he whispered, and Bombay slithered in through the narrow gap. Balinese pushed the window most of the way closed and let Bombay take point again.
The hallway led to a service elevator. Balinese slid those doors apart, too, trusting that Bombay’s handiwork would stop an alarm from going off. Nothing audible was triggered, and Balinese leaned into the shaft. It went up to the top floor of the building, three stories above his head, but – more importantly – it went the four levels down that held the other two members of Weiß. The elevator itself was at the bottom of the shaft, and Balinese swung himself onto the access ladder and started down.
Sublevel 2, Bombay mouthed, when Balinese glanced back, and Balinese frowned.
I know, he said soundlessly, and focused on getting to the right floor.
Access panels for electrical junctions dotted the shaft, none of which were wide enough to crawl through. The elevator doors would have to be opened, when they reached the sublevel, and that was the point about which Balinese was most concerned. There was no controlling that variable, except for the choice of service elevator.
Both too soon and after an eternity, the door loomed out of the half dark. Balinese stopped next to it, listening as carefully as he could. He couldn’t hear anything. Given that he didn’t know how well the walls blocked sound, it didn’t comfort him. He braced himself, carefully reaching, and tried to open the doors just enough to let sound through. They slid obligingly open, red emergency exit lights casting a dim glow into the shaft, but there was no other sound.
Balinese silently let out the breath he’d caught just as it attempted to escape with a yell, and wedged a rock into the groove. He slipped through the door and made way for Bombay to follow. The hallway was empty. Balinese glanced up at the camera clearly visible at the end of the hall, where it angled around to go deeper into the building. It glowed red, and he sincerely hoped it was stuck on Bombay’s looped footage rather than recording them.
“Keep going,” Bombay hissed, the sound echoing through the corridor. “We have to check Abyssinian’s assigned cell anyway.”
Balinese peered around the corner. No one was visible. He moved quickly, keeping a low profile, and heard the nearly-silent footsteps matched with his as Bombay hurried after him. Instead of watching their rear, Bombay was crowding his heels. Balinese thought about pointing out the lapse, but if they got out quickly enough, it wouldn’t matter. The next corridor came up, and Balinese ducked down the side.
The inside of the sublevel was laid out in a near-grid, with a few dead ends and unexpected blind corners. None of them were in any sort of pattern. The sublevels extended out past the walls of the building on either side, and the length they’d already gone was starting to make Balinese nervous. He recounted the steps in his head, comparing them against the blueprint he’d tried to memorize, and he thought he was correct.
Locked doors along a side corridor that was just a little farther than he thought they should have gone told him he might not have gotten them lost. Balinese pointed, and Bombay carefully lifted the slit near the bottom of the door. “Abyssinian,” he said softly. “He’s here.”
The rest of the cells were empty, although Balinese had expected that; Siberian’s assigned cell wasn’t in the same block as Abyssinian’s. Balinese still knew to go to collect their last errant teammate.
“Lookout,” Balinese said, and Bombay reluctantly went back to the mouth of the short corridor. It was one of the blind corners, no other way out if they were pinned down, and Bombay vanished back the way they’d come to keep watch from far enough away that they’d have a chance to take the other way out if something went wrong.
Balinese worked on the door, but it had an electronic lock. He glanced in Bombay’s direction. “This might get a little loud,” he said through the comms. “I have to blow the lock to get him out.”
There was a moment of silence. “Do it,” Bombay said.
The smallest amount of explosive in the most effective place to make the least amount of noise was an exercise Balinese had performed before, if not often, and still the sound felt as though it shook the walls. Balinese winced, darting back to the door and pulling it open. Abyssinian was inside, sprawled on the floor, not reacting at all.
“Dammit.” Balinese glanced toward the mouth of the corridor – still empty – and went inside. “Abyssinian,” he said softly, and when that got no answer, “Aya.”
A low chuckle was the response, and Balinese dragged the other man to his feet.
“Aya,” he said again, and Abyssinian leaned against him.
“I’m not telling you anything,” Abyssinian mumbled, and Balinese was taking most of his weight.
“Bombay, we have a problem,” he said, and started pulling Abyssinian out of the cell.
“We have more than one,” Bombay said. “What’s yours?”
Balinese explained in as few words as possible that Abyssinian was going to be a hindrance rather than a help in his own rescue.
“We got noticed,” Bombay said, and red lights started flashing as if on cue. “I’m going after Siberian. You get Abyssinian out of here.”
“You can’t get him out by yourself,” Balinese said. He was at the end of the short corridor, and he could hear the sound of booted feet. Bombay was moving toward them, and Balinese caught his wrist. “Which way?”
“Back the way we came,” Bombay said. “Get him out, Yohji. I won’t leave Ken behind again.”
“You can’t help him if you get caught,” Balinese said. He couldn’t pull two teammates out by himself, not if one of them was dead weight and the other was actively resisting. “You’re in no shape to do him any good.”
The footsteps got louder, and Bombay’s face crumbled. “Come on,” he said.
The corridors, still eerily quiet, pulsed with crimson dream-like light and lent a sense of unreality to their flight. Abyssinian alternated between weakly struggling against Balinese’s grip and clutching at him so tightly Balinese could barely breathe, and Balinese had no idea how they were going to get him up the elevator shaft.
“Stairs,” Bombay said, sounding out of breath entirely, and Balinese followed him through an emergency door.
The sound nearly sent Balinese careening into the wall, as loud and unexpected as it was, resembling nothing so much as a fire alarm, and he nearly dropped Abyssinian.
“Get off me!” Those words were clear, and Balinese spent a precious few seconds to subdue Abyssinian into a fireman’s carry in order to get him up the stairs.
At the top, Bombay was holding the door open, and Balinese ran through it without looking. The window they’d come in was only a few meters away, and there were four men between them and it. His hands were occupied. He could see the small knot, startled by their abrupt appearance, start to reach for and raise weapons, and then small silver darts appeared in the air.
Three of the four hit their targets, the red-lit shapes dropping suddenly, and Balinese had his hands free enough to send wire singing through the stuttering sound to spill blood on the floor. Balinese disengaged the length and found Bombay trying to coax Abyssinian back to his feet. He shouldered Bombay aside, threw Abyssinian’s arm over his shoulder, and kept going.
The window was still open, and Balinese scrambled through. He was almost immediately soaked by pouring rain, the ground soft beneath his feet. He pulled Abyssinian out, Bombay following, and they staggered across the lawn. Bright searchlights strobed the darkness around them, broken into a million flickering points by the raindrops, and they barely made it to the dubious shelter of the trees.
“Now what,” Balinese hissed.
“I’m thinking,” Bombay hissed back. He’d found his laptop, and was shoving it into its case and over his back. It was almost definitely ruined, but they couldn’t leave it behind.
Balinese kept going, fairly sure he knew where the car was hidden, although he wasn’t convinced they would be able to make it. Even if they did, they’d been noticeable enough that he had no faith in their ability to make anything resembling a clean getaway. Bombay caught up to him, rain slicking his hair to his face, and Balinese opened his mouth without knowing what he wanted to say. The comm crackled to life in his ear.
“Manx,” Bombay said, surprise threading his voice. There was more that Balinese couldn’t read, packed into the single name.
“Drive to the airfield.”
Balinese privately felt that Manx’s faith in their ability to get to the car, much less the airfield, was sorely misplaced, even if Abyssinian was taking some of his own weight now and letting them move that much more quickly.
“The – what?” Bombay stumbled over the syllables.
“The airfield,” Manx said impatiently. “You know where it is.”
“I know,” Bombay told her. “How did you know?”
“I received the mission report,” Manx said. “I interpreted it as a request for assistance.”
“I see,” Bombay said, and Balinese could feel his sharp gaze even in the dark. “We were not completely successful,” he said. “We have Abyssinian.”
There were a few seconds of silence. “Transportation is waiting for you,” Manx said. “We will further discuss your actions when you’re on board.”
Abyssinian chose that moment to trip, and by the time Balinese was able to pay attention to the comms again, they were quiet and Bombay was off-course. Balinese pointed out the correct direction, and Bombay flashed him an unreadable look. Thunder rolled overhead, and Bombay kept his mouth shut.
The moments between stumbling through the woods with an only partially cooperative Abyssinian in tow and the sensation of the small plane lifting off were never particularly clear in Yohji’s memory afterwards, a jumbled mess of adrenaline and nausea punctuated by the rushing of wind and the sensation of rain. His clothes stuck to his skin, and the plane barely seemed to leave the ground.
It seemed like barely seconds later that Yohji felt the plane shake again. He felt stiff, as though he’d been sitting without moving, and his clothes were mostly dry. “Omi?”
“We just took off again,” Omi said.
“Took off?” Yohji’s mind felt slow, nothing firing the way it should, and he rubbed his eyes. It was still dark outside, the barest hints of a grayish glow visible through the windows. “Didn’t we just take off?”
“We landed in Anchorage to refuel. We’re headed to Hokkaido. Abyssinian’s still asleep.” Omi’s heels were tucked against his thighs and his arms wrapped around his knees. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.”
Yohji stretched. “So,” he started.
“The bathroom’s over there.” Omi pointed. There wasn’t much space in the plane, and it wasn’t designed for long-haul flights.
Yohji accepted Omi’s diversionary tactic and visited the narrow excuse for a head; it wasn’t as though he didn’t need it. He was glad of it later, when Aya finally woke up enough to be coherent; whatever had been done to him left him with severe nausea. A look from Omi sent Yohji to see if he could be helpful, or at least comforting, but Aya snarled at him and Yohji left him to hurl his guts out in peace.
“I can’t believe you told Manx where we were going,” Omi said in a low voice when Yohji reappeared.
“What else was I supposed to do?” Yohji returned, keeping his voice just as low. “That’s the only reason we didn’t all get caught.”
“You don’t know that,” Omi said. “I could have gotten Ken out of there.”
“No, you couldn’t have, and you know it, and that’s why you didn’t try,” Yohji said bluntly. Omi didn’t need his feelings spared, he needed the truth. “It was touch and go as it was.”
“You slept through it, you have no idea,” Omi said, but the way he wouldn’t meet Yohji’s eyes told Yohji that he wasn’t wrong. Omi shifted in his seat, and his shirt fell open just enough for Yohji to see color that shouldn’t have been there.
“Are you bleeding?” He reached for Omi’s jacket, and Omi slapped his hands away.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“It’s not nothing.” Yohji reached again, and Omi pulled away.
“It’s been bandaged,” he said. “I’ll get it looked at when we land.”
“You shouldn’t be flying at all,” Yohji said, but it wasn’t as though they had had much of a choice. The hum of the engines cut across his words.
“We shouldn’t have left him behind,” Omi said, and his eyes were dry. Yohji would have felt better if Omi had cried, if he’d shown some sort of feeling other than the utterly empty expression he had now.
“We couldn’t do anything else,” he said, and then, “We can try again. We won’t leave him there.” Yohji had been the one to make the decision, though, both times. He’d abandoned Ken twice, acting as the field leader that he wasn’t, and the guilt sat in him like a stone.
Chapter 9: Still Waters
Interlude I – Siberian
Ken tried to think of himself as Siberian. It was a shell, an identity he’d worn for long enough that it had seeped into the cracks in his soul, sealed him off and cleaned him up, supported the increasing hollow sense of nothing at his core. It gave him strength, as long as he fed it with the blood of the traitors and the transgressors, each moment of feeling a heart cease beating at the tips of his claws giving him a new lease on life. He could breathe, when the guilty stopped drawing breath.
Pain flickered across his skin, pulling at his nerves, picking apart the frayed ends of his perception and sliding between Hidaka Ken and Siberian. He clung to his alter ego and it slipped away. He found himself laughing, and a stinging slap across his cheek was enough of a difference from the pain to let him choke it back down. He wasn’t sure why he was trying; he wasn’t Aya, to hide behind a wall of stoic silence.
“Explain what you meant by target.”
The voice was authoritative, its cadences the same even when its timbre changed. Ken shook the damp hair out of his eyes and squinted into the bright light. He couldn’t see anything more than a vague silhouette, and he dropped his gaze. “A target is a target,” he said. He could taste salt and copper on his tongue, but he couldn’t find anything broken. “A target is a target is what you aim for.”
If he could say enough, the pain would stop. He’d had this assurance over and over again. He didn’t believe it, because the pain never stopped, even when everything was still. Siberian made sure of that, hungry for the end of the guilty.
“Who is Siberian?”
Ken started laughing again. “I am he and he is me,” he said, a hint of a melody coming out in badly accented English. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what language he was speaking. He could feel the sense of hungry anticipation outside his own skin, curdling his stomach.
“Then tell me who plays god, who decides who lives and who dies. I know you weren’t in this alone.” Curiosity sharpened the words, the sound as even and smooth as the surface of deep water.
Siberian thought maybe their comms had given them away, custom-made equipment better built than what was available on the open market. Kritiker had all of the best toys, he’d thought once, although none of them were given projectile weapons. They reaped the whirlwind of their sin in blood and pain, damage put on them by looking the guilty in the eyes, by staring evil in the face and putting it out of its misery.
Not like the false cleanliness of death at a distance.
“Who gives you instructions?”
“We seek out evil,” Siberian said. “We seek it out and destroy it, hunt the tomorrows of… of...” The words wouldn’t come.
“Are you trying to distract me?” There was a flash of annoyance, and Siberian doubled over as it pierced through the frail defenses he hadn’t quite managed to erect.
Sometimes the voices left him alone in the dark, and his head cleared enough to wonder why he hadn’t seen Abyssinian. Sometimes he was left in dark-edged brightness, shadows casting harsh lines every time he moved. There were moments when drawing breath was limned with pain, and moments in which he felt light and free, as if nothing tethered him to the ground. He tried to remember what not to say, when he felt lucid, remember to muddy the waters with plausible lies so the truth wouldn’t stand out.
“Your partner abandoned you,” he heard. The voice was deeper, but the cadence was still the same, the sense of anticipation that he couldn’t explain.
Siberian bit down on the automatic retort that Aya wouldn’t have left him, Yohji wouldn’t have left him, Omi wouldn’t have left him. None of them would abandon him here in a hole to die, because they were Weiß and Weiß took care of its own. They would have to abandon him, if Kritiker ordered them to do it. Ken knew perfectly well what happened to operatives who were compromised. He’d looked for his cyanide, and it had been gone.
“Lone wolves don’t carry suicide pills,” said his interrogator, and the anticipation bled into contempt that twisted Ken’s guts into a knot. “Too much ego, too much of a sense of drama. Too much vainglory. You – you and your partner – you were part of an organization, or you wouldn’t have been equipped with a kill switch.”
“We worked as a team,” Ken said. “No orders.” That wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t already know. “No compromising the mission.”
“What is your mission?” There was a rustling noise, as though his interrogator were leaning forward.
“Cleanse the earth of sin,” Ken said, and smiled. “Punish the guilty, protect the innocent.”
“You can’t play the arbiter of fate,” snapped his interrogator, and Ken had no idea what half of the words meant. The session devolved into a haze of prickling cold and nauseous heat and the sound of voices rummaging through his mind. They picked out what they wanted to hear, out of the offerings he gave, and he had no idea what language he was speaking when he was thrown back into the cell.
At least the cell was clean, he thought, and had the striking urge to drown the sharp edges in putrescence. Filth outside to match the filth inside.
Put it in a box, he thought, and the sense of Omi’s voice was so strong that he nearly looked around for his teammate before he remembered that he was alone.
Put it all in a box, he heard again, and he remembered what Omi had tried to teach all of them once. Ken had gotten the trick better than either of the others, and he let the threads of recollection draw it out now. He gathered up his sense of self, his sense of identity. He pulled everything that he was into a box inside his mind and locked it. It would be safe, until he was free or until he was dead. The barest edge of Siberian opened its eyes into the dark and waited for his tormentors to return.
Interlude II - Birman
“No, sir.” Birman’s insides writhed, but she kept her face perfectly still. “The unauthorized attempt was unsuccessful.”
“What a damn mess.” Persia wasn’t what the second Persia had been, and he certainly wasn’t what the first Persia had been, but he’d taken the ethics of the second and the principles of the first and brought them together into a mismatched whole that struggled to carry out its mission nonetheless. Birman admired him for it, even as she wondered what the organization would have been like had the Takatori brothers not culminated their feud in mutual death.
Then again, that particular feud was what had fueled Kritiker’s development as far as it had, and it had had no other possible outcome. The man now acting as arbiter beyond the law had risen to the top of the nightmare Persia’s death had left, and held his position with a combination of charm, force, and dirty tricks. No part of that combination was in evidence now; he was rubbing tired eyes with one hand, frowning at the sheet of paper in his hand.
“You told me,” he said, and Birman felt her gut tighten. “You and Manx both assured me that the tactical advantage of keeping Weiß together far outweighed the potential drawbacks.”
“I stand by that assessment,” Birman said. “They’re the best field unit Kritiker has ever developed.”
“Every other long-term field unit went rogue,” Persia reminded her. “Or do I have to remind you about Weiß’ previous incarnation.”
“No, sir.” Birman was intimately familiar, as Weiß’ current handler should be.
“We shuffle the teams for a reason,” Persia said. “Their loyalties should be to Kritiker, not to each other.”
“They’ve functioned longer than any other team without significant breakdown,” Birman said. “No individual operative has come close to matching their record.”
“Most of the current operatives have been recruited since the disaster with Schwarz,” Persia snapped. “And I pray a nightmare like that doesn’t happen again.”
Birman held her tongue; creating operatives specifically to counter the members of Schwarz – who, admittedly, had gone underground since the incident in the bay – was one of the current Persia’s pet projects. If he couldn’t find enhanced humans, he was going to learn how to make them. Birman wasn’t convinced, no matter how much she respected Persia, but she followed her orders.
“They touched down in Hokkaido?” Persia asked.
“Last night,” Birman said.
“And why are they still there?”
Birman blinked, nonplussed and not sure how he wanted her to answer; Bombay’s original injury had torn open and he’d needed it repaired. He’d been lucky in that the pressure changes of takeoff and landing hadn’t done worse, on top of the strain he’d put on himself by going out into the field in the first place, but his recovery had been significantly delayed. Persia was aware of that; it was part of the report in his hand.
“Bombay,” she started carefully.
“And Abyssinian,” Persia said, cutting her off. “Yes. I know. Abyssinian will require a full evaluation before I even think about letting him anywhere near field work.”
“Yes, sir.” Birman bit the inside of her lip. Abyssinian had been poisoned and essentially tortured, his initial bloodwork showing evidence of a surprising array of techniques. Some of them, Birman was sure, Persia would incorporate into Kritiker’s repertoire. Or perhaps she wasn’t giving him enough credit; Kritiker had yet to inflict pain for the sake of pain.
“When both of them are stable enough to travel, I want them back in Tokyo,” Persia said.
“And Balinese?” Birman said, before she could stop herself. If he didn’t give instructions regarding Balinese, she could leave him where he was and let him act as emotional support for his damaged teammates.
“Recall him to Tokyo,” Persia said, a faint note of surprise in his voice. “Weiß needs to be debriefed, and he’s the only one who can currently act in that capacity.”
“Yes, sir,” Birman said again.
“About Siberian.” Persia hesitated for the first time.
“Yes, sir?” Birman knew what Persia was going to say, and she didn’t want to hear it.
“The branch of the organization holding him,” Persia said instead, and Birman reflexively brought the relevant passages of Weiß’ report to mind. It didn’t exist, technically speaking, as far as any official documentation was concerned. Or at least, as far as any official documentation that Bombay could dig up, in the scant time and with the even scanter resources he’d had.
“What about it?” she said.
“The building was reported burned to the ground.” Persia leaned back in his chair. “None of the survivors match Siberian’s description.”
“That wasn’t in the report,” Birman said. Bombay and Balinese had left the building intact, fleeing just ahead of the late-shift guards and managing to escape by the thinnest of margins. Neither of them had been aware of how close the plane had been to interception, and it was only the confusion of the thunderstorm that had covered their escape.
“You trust them?” Persia said, almost idly.
“I do,” Birman replied. Radio chatter the plane’s pilot had picked up had corroborated the report Bombay had submitted before he’d made it. Persia was well aware of the pilot’s statements, and the recordings.
“I’m not sure I would call that a report,” Persia said lightly.
“Given the circumstances, it was an admirable effort,” Birman said. A handwritten scrawl on a stack of cocktail napkins, to be fair, did not technically constitute a report. Manx, meeting her team in Hokkaido, had transcribed the notes into something resembling the appropriate format, but one of the members of Weiß was going to have to produce the paperwork sooner or later. “Weiß has demonstrated considerable resilience, even in this particular assignment. The members’ track records speak for themselves.”
“Right.” Persia frowned again, and Birman wondered if she’d been mistaken to bring up Weiß’ long history. The loss of the organization in New York had been a considerable disappointment, the incarceration of two agents an even greater one. That the primary objective of data retrieval had been carried out mitigated the damage somewhat had little bearing on Weiß’ very public failure. “Assign someone to go over personnel shuffling again, matching skills to assignments. We have enough of a network to be able to more carefully tailor our operatives to the jobs at hand.”
“And recruitment?” Birman asked.
“Keep the current programs in place. They’ve worked out well enough. Let me know when Balinese arrives in Tokyo.” Persia put the report to the side of his desk, an effective dismissal. Birman bowed sharply and left the office, closing the door behind her.
Whether or not Weiß was allowed to continue as a unit wasn’t the question; the name carried weight within Kritiker, regardless of its members, and Persia would always choose someone to fill out its roster. The status of the current members rested on the debrief with Balinese, whose information would determine re-activation or retirement. Birman shivered slightly. Retirement would be gentle and swift, the kindest method chosen for each operative, but she didn’t want to lose any of them.
Chapter 10: Transition
Three days. Omi glared at the pages in front of him. It had been three days since their small plane had landed in Hokkaido and he’d been dumped in a hospital. It made no difference that at least this time, he spoke the language and could read the documents presented to him with very little effort, that the staff used the correct forms of address or that he didn’t have to think before he replied. The pain in his side had long since gone and there was no reason to keep him tied down.
I was supposed to have a tomorrow with Ken. The thought wouldn’t leave him alone; as tenuous as he knew their future to be, as risky as their job was, he should have had more than a few months of stolen moments. Omi should have been able to manipulate the outcome, should have been able to create a pocket of circumstance that let them be together. It maybe wouldn’t have lasted, he thought, but he’d wanted it to burn bright for as long as it could, give them the chance to carve out a semblance of happiness, and instead he’d had to leave Ken behind. Twice. There won’t be a third time, he repeated to himself. Not a third.
“Yo, Omi.” The telephone receiver wedged between his ear and his shoulder was another source of distress. Balinese had been whisked away to Tokyo almost the minute they’d landed, Kritiker driving salt into their wounds instead of letting what remained of their team pull itself together. Omi was willing to admit that his internal monologue might have been slightly dramatic, but he was entitled to a small amount of melodrama, he though. “Omi,” Yohji said sharply.
“Thought you fell asleep on me.” Yohji’s voice was loose and relaxed, syllables slipping past each other like water. “How’s Aya?”
“No idea.” The pages in front of him made no sense, and Omi closed the book. “No one will let me see him. No one will let me out of this room. I don’t think I’m supposed to be stuck here. I think not letting me walk down the halls is interfering with my recovery.” He put the words in sarcastic air quotes, even though Yohji couldn’t see his hands.
“Omi,” Yohji said, and he had that tone that meant he thought Omi wasn’t acting his age, that Omi was behaving like the child he wasn’t but that the rest of Weiß somehow still thought he was.
“I’m not sulking,” he said, hearing the peevish edge to his voice. “I’m sorry.”
“How’s the studying?” Yohji asked, clearly aiming for a light tone and missing it by a wide margin.
“Fine,” Omi muttered. Manx had gotten him permission to retake the final exams he’d missed over the summer, which would let him re-enroll for his final semester of high school the following spring, but only if he passed a set of qualifying exams first. The system was ridiculous.
“So you’ll be back in Tokyo to take them,” Yohji pressed, and Omi bit back a sigh.
“I get discharged day after tomorrow. Probably. Maybe.” He rubbed his forehead, a dull ache starting up behind his temples. “I don’t know about Aya. No one will tell me about Aya.” They wouldn’t give him a computer, either; Manx had handed him hard copies of the texts he would need for the qualifying exams and a stack of notebooks.
“Be cunning,” Yohji said. “I mean, don’t be sneaky, don’t cheat. Obviously.”
“Sure,” Omi said, after a pause. “I’ll see you in a few days, then.”
“Listen,” Yohji said abruptly. “You should hear this face to face, and not over the phone.”
Omi’s heart felt as though it seized briefly, before resuming a painful rhythm. Whatever Yohji was about to say, he didn’t want to hear it. “So tell me in Tokyo,” he said. “It’s only a few days.”
“No,” Yohji said. “You should hear it from me. Or from Aya, but I’m going to have to tell him, too, if he ever manages to get a phone. So you should hear it from me.”
“Yohji.” Omi was struck by the sudden urge to hang up, to cut off Yohji’s voice. His chest felt tight, and he couldn’t get enough air.
“No, Omi, you need to listen.” A creaking noise echoed across the line, the sound of distressed metal and plastic, and Omi had the vision of Yohji gripping the receiver until his knuckles were white, its material cracking under the strain. “The building where we found Ken and Aya.”
The building, Omi thought, and for a moment the bands around his chest loosened. “What about it?”
“Kritiker has some information,” Yohji said, as though he were hesitant to say whatever he’d been pushing to tell Omi, now that he had Omi’s attention, and then he fell entirely silent.
“What information?” Omi said sharply.
“There was a fire,” Yohji said. “Weiß gets held and tortured, the building catches fire. Or sinks into the ocean, take your pick, it’s one or the other, every time.”
“Yohji,” Omi snapped. He heard Yohji take a deep breath on the other end of the line.
“The building burned to the ground and below,” Yohji said. “The local authorities don’t know the cause. None of the survivors picked up by EMS match Siberian’s description.”
“And the unidentified casualties?” Omi said, hearing his voice at a distance.
“None of them, either,” Yohji said, and sound came crashing back. Omi felt his hands shaking, and he balled them into fists. The edge of the receiver dug into his ear, and he became aware of the tightness in his shoulder, pressing the telephone upwards as he tried to curl into a ball.
“So he might be alive,” Omi said. “He might have gotten out.”
“The, ah, site isn’t stable.” Yohji swallowed audibly. “All listed employees and others are accounted for, and no further attempts are being made to go through the site. There’s some worry about waste compounds temporarily stored that might make the area hazardous for rescue personnel.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” Omi said. “Hazardous waste.” If he could have poured more contempt into the words, he would have.
“There’s no reason to believe he’s alive,” Yohji said softly. “Kritiker has closed his file.”
“I don’t believe it.” His voice was at a distance again, echoing in his ears with the pressure across his chest. “I can’t. I won’t.”
“Omi, I’m sorry.”
The sound of a crash startled Omi, and he looked up to see the telephone in pieces across the floor. How did that get there, he thought dully, but it didn’t matter. He wrapped his arms around his knees and ignored the staff who came running, drawn by the unexpected noise and who wouldn’t let him cry in peace. He couldn’t even cry when they left, eyes painfully dry and breath catching in his throat. He’d known Kritiker wouldn’t help him retrieve Ken, but that Yohji was siding with the agency instead of his team hurt.
Maybe Aya, Omi thought, and held onto the idea. At the very least, when Ken came back, they would be waiting for him. If he’d burned down the building, it had been his attempt to escape, and Ken was capable. He would be able find his way back, even if he had to do it alone. Having Kritiker think he was dead wouldn’t help him, but it wouldn’t hurt him either. They couldn’t try to retire him if they didn’t know he was still alive.
Omi sat up straighter and looked for the book he’d been studying. It had slid onto the floor, and he climbed out of the bed to pick it up. It had fallen face down, pages bent, and he smoothed them out as best he could. Kritiker is nothing but smoke and mirrors. He needed something substantial, something of his own, something he could touch to show that he was more than a passing shadow and a failed human being. The spine of the book creaked under his fingers and he made himself let go, sitting on the ground next to it and opening it to the section he’d been studying. The words blurred together on the page, and he closed it again, irritated with it and with himself.
I’ll feel better when I tell Aya. That was it, that was the new plan. Omi leaned sideways against the wall. He knew where Aya was supposed to be, and Yohji had told him – before he’d dropped his bombshell – to go find their teammate. Those were instructions he could follow.
When Omi slipped out of his room, the hallway was still lit. The windows outside were dark, but the halls only dimmed slightly when the sun set and it was supposed to be time for sleep. He glanced up and down, but saw no one near enough to pay him any attention, and making it to Aya’s room was nearly child’s play. Omi opened the door carefully and closed it behind him, Aya’s scarlet hair verifying that he had the right place although Aya was facing the window.
“Wake up,” Omi said softly, touching his teammate’s shoulder.
Aya blinked up at him, violet eyes murky and then sharpening. “Bombay,” he said, and Omi tried to smile like himself.
“How are you?” he asked, the question both meaningless and of the utmost importance.
“I don’t know.” Aya sounded as though the phrase were being dragged out of him unwillingly, the words halting and uncertain. “Where are Balinese and Siberian?”
“You haven’t been told anything.” There was a chair, near the bed. Bombay hooked it with one ankle and pulled it close enough to sit down on. “He was recalled back to Tokyo.”
“Both of them?” Aya’s voice was clearer, his face less confused. He closed his eyes for a moment and looked almost like himself when he opened them.
“Balinese,” Omi said. “Siberian is.” His voice cracked and he closed his mouth, horrified. “Is,” he started again, but the same obstacle lodged itself in his throat. “Siberian is missing, presumed dead,” he said, forcing the phrase out in a hoarse half-whisper.
Aya’s face crumpled, only for a second. “Balinese is in Tokyo,” he said when his features were smooth again. His voice didn’t so much as hitch. “Kritiker is debriefing him.” It wasn’t a question so much as a statement of what the correct protocol should have been.
Omi nodded, still unable to speak.
“We’re going,” Abyssinian said, face hardened into a familiar mask. “Now.”
For a moment, Omi let himself lean on Aya, let someone else take the responsibility out of his hands. He didn’t want to be the person who called the shots, decided who lived and who died; it was so much easier to follow orders, to let others feel the guilt and bear the consequences. Omi gave himself those few seconds of believing that he didn’t have to pull the strings, and then let it go. “When do you get discharged?” he asked. His voice was steady.
“I don’t know.” Aya pushed the long hair out of his eyes. It reached his shoulders, still brilliant and striking. Omi reached out and tucked it behind one ear, and Aya flinched. The motion was subtle, but it was there, and Omi pulled back.
“If we leave now, we can be there by tomorrow afternoon.” The first trains would start running in a couple of hours, Omi thought, and it wouldn’t take much longer to reach the capital.
“Understood.” It was Aya that spoke, not Abyssinian, the brief illusion of Aya’s other self broken the moment Omi spoke with authority.
Tokyo Station was crowded, loud and bright, full of pedestrians moving with purpose and without, a writhing mass of humanity fractured into its pieces over and over again, coming back together in waves. Omi had the fleeting impulse to walk into the crowd and disappear, as if he could dissolve into the middle of it with bits and pieces of himself floating off in every direction until there was nothing left, but it dissipated the moment he caught a familiar crimson suit standing in exactly the right spot to intercept them.
Manx was a pebble in the flow, forcing eddies and splits as the crowd moved around her. Omi came to a halt in front of her, Aya hovering at his shoulder. She wore heels rather than her usual sandals, forcing him to look up to meet her eyes, and Omi wasn’t going to be even slightly put off by that particular tactic. He lifted his chin, ignoring the ache that spread down his side with the movement. “Manx,” he said.
“Welcome to Tokyo,” Manx said, ignoring the fact that Omi had left her behind in Sapporo without warning, and yet here she was standing in front of them and waiting. “Your exams aren’t until next week.”
“We felt Balinese might benefit from some support,” Omi said. “The assignment took some unexpected terms.”
“Follow me.” Manx turned abruptly and Omi had to jog to catch up. Aya strode smoothly, on his longer legs, taking up a protective position. Omi couldn’t decide if he appreciated the gesture, particularly since he wasn’t sure Aya was doing it on purpose. Manx turned again, stepping into a small coffee shop just off the main corridor. It was full as well, but a table cleared just as they entered. Manx glanced at Omi and he sighed.
Aya blinked when Omi slid into the seat, nonplussed, and Omi thought Aya had been moving on autopilot after all. If they had been on assignment, it would have been a dangerous mix of inattention and muscle memory, and Omi found himself actively agreeing with Kritiker’s decision to keep Aya out of doing field work. “Follow Manx,” he said, and Aya moved into position again.
The cup Manx put down in front of Omi turned out to have tea rather than coffee, the particular blend Omi favored. He wrapped his fingers around it, and didn’t argue when Aya slid into the outer seat to put Omi between him and the wall. Manx sat opposite, red hair and crimson suit a splash of color that stood out even in the vibrant atmosphere of Tokyo Station. “I’m sorry about Ken,” Manx said.
Omi felt the cup start to give way under his hands and let go just as the lid popped off. Aya rescued the cup, setting it upright a few centimeters farther away. “He’s not dead,” Omi said.
“Omi.” Manx didn’t use their given names; in all the time she’d spent as their handler, particularly after they’d left Tokyo behind, she’d stuck to their code names. The use of his given name now, the name he’d been given at the start of his training rather than the one he’d received at birth, was jarring. Omi shook his head. “There are no signs of him.”
“He wasn’t in any of the local morgues, either,” Omi said. “He’s not dead.”
“The information we have doesn’t indicate -” Manx started.
“I don’t care.” Omi cut her off, keeping his voice low out of habit. “I know he’s still alive.”
“Kritiker is as certain as we can be without laying eyes on a body,” Manx said, uncharacteristically blunt. Her voice had dropped an octave below its usual register, rendering it nearly the voice of a stranger, and Omi stilled.
“I don’t want to believe it,” he said. “I don’t.” Without access to Kritiker’s resources, Omi wouldn’t be able to keep an ear to the ground for traces of Ken. Step one was gathering information, and once he had something more concrete, he would be able to make a move. If Kritiker thought he would defy orders, he’d be shut out; ergot, playing along was the only choice.
“Weiß doesn’t -” Aya started, and ground to a halt. “Weiß won’t leave one of its own,” he said, the words sounding bitter.
You’re the only one who doesn’t need absolution, Omi wanted to tell him. Aya hadn’t been the one to make the decision to leave Ken behind; Omi and Yohji bore the weight of prioritizing one teammate above another, of making the decision not to play against the odds. “We knew this would happen,” he said softly. He couldn’t have Aya sabotaging his attempt to pretend to play along.
“Not like this,” Aya said, picking exactly the wrong time to be stubborn. Omi reflected briefly that Aya had never picked the right time to dig in his heels.
“Aya,” he said. “We need to face the truth.” He couldn’t bring himself to say out loud that Ken wasn’t coming back.
“I can’t believe you’re saying that,” Aya said. “You. Or was Yohji mistaken?”
“Mistaken about what?” Manx asked.
“Nothing,” Omi said quickly. “Yohji doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Aya looked hurt, although he covered it up so quickly Omi barely caught it. “I see,” he said, and Omi hoped that he had finally understood what Omi couldn’t say with Manx listening.
“Of course,” Manx said slowly, and Omi bit the inside of his cheek to keep his expression from changing. “I wanted you both here to deliver the news about Siberian face to face,” she said, straightening into their handler again. “I see Balinese took it on himself to inform you prematurely.”
“You can’t blame him for that,” Omi said softly. “Weiß looks after our own.”
“No,” Manx said, the word clipped. “That has always been one of Weiß’ greatest strengths.” She took a sip of her drink, ice shifting under the straw as it melted. “You’ll both be debriefed,” she said. “A full re-evaluation of all three of you and of Weiß as a unit, before fieldwork is approved again.”
“In Tokyo?” Omi asked. “At Kitten in the House?”
“No,” Aya cut in, before Omi had finished the name of the flowershop now manned by his sister. “Not there.”
“No,” Manx agreed mildly. “You’ll be in one of the safehouses. Bombay, you’ll have time to concentrate on your coursework in the meantime.”
“In the meantime?” Omi paused in the act of reaching for his half-ruined cup of tea. “How long do you expect this to take?” The semester wasn’t over until March; it had barely begun. “It’s only September.”
“It’s nearly October,” Manx said, which was a matter of opinion. “I expect it to take a matter of weeks, not months,” she added.
“What, exactly, do you want us to do?” Aya asked.
“You have hobbies,” Manx said, which was a lie so transparent as to be laughable. None of them had much of anything, outside of Weiß. “You have interests. Pursue them. Take some time. Remain available.”
Omi bit his tongue. “Of course,” he said, when he was sure he could speak calmly, as if Manx hadn’t just asked them to wait to know whether Kritiker wanted them to live or die. He glanced sideways at Aya, but there was no help from that quarter. Omi wasn’t even sure Aya – or Yohji, or Ken – was entirely aware of how Kritiker handled agents moving out of the organization. “Is Balinese at the safehouse?” he asked.
“You’ll meet him there,” Manx said, which didn’t quite answer the question, and stood.
Aya took several seconds to follow suit, long enough that his actions could have been considered insubordination, and Manx raised an immaculately penciled eyebrow when he stood glowering down at her from his full height. Omi tried not to bury his face in his hands.
The safehouse, when Omi finally reached it – alone and without a visible escort – was dark, lit only by the streetlights outside. He flicked on the closest light switch he could find, toeing his shoes off in the entrance and stepping up to a faux-wooden floor. It was an actual house, narrow and long, tucked between two taller apartment buildings on an unassuming street. Omi had seen hundreds of buildings like it, older relics of a previous age still standing because the space they occupied couldn’t be put to more efficient use.
“Yohji?” he called, but there was no answer. The entrance led to a stairwell, angling off to the right. Omi leaned back, noticing for the first time that the outside portion of the entrance led to a locked second door to the right. He put his shoes back on and turned the deadbolt, poking his head through the door. The unmistakable scent of a flowershop sat heavy in the air, and Omi could see a little of it in the light filtering through the open door. “Unbelievable,” he muttered, and walked through it.
The shop was laid out differently from the Kitten in the House; there was very little space for stock, for one, the merchandise entirely out on the floor. There was a small cafe attached to the shop, a few small tables and a kitchen. Omi read the hand-written menu board, noting in passing that it wasn’t Yohji’s handwriting. The closet next to the cafe held perishable supplies, while the closet under the stairs had what few back-stocked items the flowershop carried.
“Absolutely unbelievable,” Omi muttered again. “Yohji!”
Omi checked the front shop door, out of habit, noting that the locks to the front door and the deadbolted door corresponded to what he’d naively thought was an extra set of keys. “Should have known better,” he said to himself, made sure all the locks were bolted shut, and went up the stairs.
There was no reason to expect to come to harm in a Kritiker safehouse, Omi told himself. No matter how the debriefing had gone, Kritiker didn’t retire its agents on its own property, and the debriefing hadn’t gone badly. He’d answered hours’ worth of questions, explaining again and again the decisions that had been made and why he had made them. None of them know how Ken and Aya had been made in the first place, what the security leak had been, and it wasn’t as though they could track down Morris’s group to find out now.
Omi had defended the actions that were under their control, and he thought Kritiker wasn’t about to pull them out of fieldwork entirely. Still, walking up the blind corners of the stairwell was nervewracking, and Omi made as little noise as possible. You gave yourself away when you turned on the light, he told himself, but it didn’t help.
The stairwell opened up onto another blind corridor, sliding door in front of him and corridor angling to his left and behind. He was facing the street again. Omi left the sliding door closed and padded down the hall. There were three doors, the one at the end of the hall leading to a bathroom and a tiny south-facing balcony conveniently placed behind the cubby with the washing machine. Explains the north-facing shop front, Omi thought, and then realized that the apartment buildings to either side of the safehouse were similarly oriented, and he should have seen it coming.
The second door led to a toilet, swinging open on its hinges. The slippers inside were neatly arranged next to the door, telling Omi that Yohji wasn’t in the building at all. The third door – closest to the stairs, at right angles to the sliding door he’d seen first – led to a pantry and the kitchen opening up to his right. Omi moved through it, noting the dining table in front of the north-facing balcony doors. That’s how I got turned around, he thought. The main balcony should have been on the south side of the building. A tiny corner of a living room completed the space where Omi would wait for Kritiker to pass judgment, and sending him through the sliding doors he’d seen first. He went back to the stairs.
Another tiny balcony greeted him, streetlights shining through the glass slits in the door. Omi ignored it, and found a pair of bedrooms. The larger had clearly been designed for children – a built-in desk gave them a place to study, and it was furnished with two individual beds. The smaller held a double bed, occupied. Omi felt his heart turn over at the sight of someone curled into the center of the mattress, until the crimson hair fanned across the pillow registered and Omi wondered where Aya had hidden his shoes. They hadn’t been in the entrance on the bottom floor.
Omi closed the door silently and went back to the other bedroom. As far as he could tell, Yohji hadn’t been in it. He chose the bed closer to yet another balcony door out of a sense of perversity; Aya couldn’t pretend to protect him forever. The closet opposite the bed held clothes to fit him, much to Omi’s annoyance. Kritiker thinks it knows us that well, does it, he thought, but Kritiker had made him. They can’t predict everything.
The stairs continued upwards, and Omi stood on the roof in his sock feet. The buildings to either side towered over his head, cutting off the sky. He felt closed in, claustrophobically trapped rather than protected, and the stars seemed unutterably distant.
“Morning,” said Yohji’s voice, and Omi flinched.
The tip of a cigarette glowed orange, and Omi belatedly registered the scent of smoke. “Where are your shoes?” he asked.
“On my feet,” Yohji answered with an air of where else would they be. “Customers aren’t allowed up here,” he said, out of nowhere.
The scent of growing things was heavy in the air up here as well, and Omi wondered briefly if Yohji had carted plants up from the flowershop. It would explain the sparseness of merchandise apparently available for sale. “And Aya’s?” he asked.
“In the closet.” The cigarette flared again, and Yohji’s face was visible in its light. He looked tired. “We’re open from nine to four,” he added. “One person in the cafe, one in the front of the shop. It’s not hard.”
“You’ve been here for all of a day,” Omi snapped.
“Three,” Yohji said. “It’s Friday.”
Omi counted the days; he’d been off, maybe asleep longer than he’d thought after arriving in Hokkaido, and he had the unpleasant sensation of lost time. “I thought it was Thursday,” he said.
“Could still be Thursday night,” Yohji allowed. “But technically it’s Friday morning.”
“My test is on Sunday,” Omi said, dismayed to realize he had less time even than he’d thought to prepare.
“Not Monday? Those bastards.” Yohji ground out the cigarette in what Omi could now see was an ashtray on a small table. “You should sleep,” he said, making no move to get up.
“How are you?” Omi asked.
“The question everyone wants answered,” Yohji said. “Most notably Kritiker. They want to know if we’re going to be stable enough for field work.” He laughed, low and nearly soundless, and Omi blinked. Yohji wasn’t even close to sober, he realized.
“Are you drunk?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“Not even a little,” Yohji said, but Omi could hear it in how his vowels melted into the consonants.
“Go to bed, Yohji,” he said.
“You’re next to the window,” Yohji told him. “I mean door.”
“Obviously.” Omi paused in the open door. “Don’t be late for your shift,” he said, feeling a sense of deja vu, as though this were Kitten in the House and it was years ago.
“I’m never late,” Yohji said. “When I show up is exactly on time.”
Omi huffed out a laugh; Yohji had used that line often enough that it had worn thin with the rest of Weiß, but the schoolgirls who frequented the Kitten in the House had loved it. Some of them had waited for Yohji to arrive late, just so they could hear him say it. Omi hadn’t thought of it since they’d moved into the mobile shop.
“Good night, Omi,” Yohji said.
Omi left him to it, closing the door. He didn’t sleep, sitting instead on the side of the bed with the balcony door open to the chilly late September air until the sky lightened on his right to herald the oncoming dawn. He didn’t hear Yohji come down the stairs, either, but he didn’t think it was too cold for Yohji to sleep outside, if he hadn’t stayed awake.
Even a few hours of sleep might have done him good, Omi thought later, struggling to remember how to make the cafe menu items. Yohji had abandoned him to it, after a brief session explaining each item precisely once, and he’d tossed Aya to the front of the shop with even less help. His side ached every time he reached above his shoulder, and being short was actively working against him yet again. Omi gritted his teeth and smiled at the few customers that did come in.
A shipment of stock arrived, sending a wave of painful deja vu through Omi; he couldn’t lift any of the heavier items, and Aya glared at him until he retreated into the cafe portion of the shop and left Aya to work alone. What am I even doing, he found himself thinking, but it was easier to just go through the motions until the rattle of Aya closing the blinds brought him out of the half-daze he’d fallen into. The lack of customers didn’t translate into it being any easier to prepare the cafe for the next day, according to the hastily scrawled instructions Omi found tacked inside the closet door, and by the time he stepped out of his shoes, the stairs seemed like an almost insurmountable obstacle.
Once Omi had gotten started, the stairs got easier, and he kept going until he reached the roof. The sun was warm, unseasonably so, and he slumped in the chair Yohji had spent the night in. The view was nothing special, the apartment buildings on either side still claustrophobically close with the afternoon sun glittering across their windows, and Omi bit his lip to stop the tears that wanted to come.
If I hadn’t, he thought, and tried to close down on the line of thought. It circled around, and he put his head down on his arms. If I hadn’t fucked up on that first day, Ken would have been able to get Aya out. The thought was agonizing, and nothing less than the truth; Omi felt his heart beating pulses of hurt through his side, the physical reminder of his failure. He was supposed to manage the pain, he remembered from the first time he’d been discharged, because managing it meant it healed more quickly. Omi put a hand over the wound, feeling the warmth of his skin. I don’t deserve not to feel this.
The second time had been worse; Omi had consciously made the decision to leave Ken behind, knowing what his teammate would be facing. Knowing that there was no coming back, that there could be no second rescue attempt, no matter what he tried to tell himself now, Omi had left the man he might have loved behind to die a slow death. The tears finally slipped out, running hot down his cheeks until he thought he might choke on his own breath, until a dissociated sense of calm settled in. Omi thought for a moment that he heard the door open and felt a hand on his shoulder, but when he looked up, no one was there. It had gotten dark, without his noticing, and he made his slow way back downstairs.
Faltering footsteps echoed up, and Omi was just in time to catch Yohji on the landing – almost literally catch, an unpleasant pull on his side protesting the sudden movement meant to keep Yohji from overbalancing. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Yohji laughed and then choked it off, his throat working. “Okay,” he said. “You’re cute, Omi.” The smell of cigarette smoke and cheap booze was almost overwhelming, and the only thing appearing to keep Yohji more or less upright was Omi’s grip. It had been a very long time since Omi had had to handle Yohji in this state, not since the early days, when they’d been hunting Takatori and all of them had been chasing their own personal demons.
Omi shook his head. “Come on,” he said, but Yohji wasn’t interested in going any farther. Omi thought about leaving him where he was, for a few seconds, and then coaxed him up the stairs and onto his bed. He made sure Yohji was lying on his side, and started to leave to find a bucket, just in case.
“I’m sorry,” Yohji said, before Omi had gotten more than a few steps away.
“For what?” Omi said. He wasn’t interested in Yohji’s apology.
“For everything,” Yohji said. “I should have – I should have been able to get everyone out.”
“It wasn’t your call to make,” Omi said. Yohji didn’t bear the responsibility for leaving Ken; Omi was the tactician and the team leader, and it rested on his shoulders.
“Omi,” Yohji said, and Omi couldn’t bear to listen.
“I’m going to find a bucket,” he said, cutting Yohji off, and left the room as swiftly as he could.
Aya was waiting for him, when Omi quietly walked into the kitchen intending to search the pantry; not waiting, as far as Omi could tell, but sitting at the kitchen table in the dark. Aya’s back was to the balcony door, his quiet form half-hidden at the end of the kitchen, and Omi nearly failed to notice him. The glow of the streetlights glittered off his hair as Omi hesitated in the doorway, and his fingers were wrapped around a mug of what Omi hoped was tea. Omi thought about pretending he hadn’t seen his teammate; if Aya was sitting in the dark, he didn’t want company, but something gave him pause.
Aya was crying.
The sight was so unexpected that Omi froze entirely; Aya didn’t cry. He got angry and charged ahead without thinking, or he sulked and ignored the rest of the team. Sometimes he smiled. But he didn’t cry. As Omi stood, indecisive and still not sure whether Aya had seen him or not, Aya shoved his mug away. It fell over, spilling all over the table and floor, and Aya buried his face in his hands, shoulders shaking.
Omi still couldn’t move, held fast now by an almost overwhelming wave of annoyance. Why did he have to be the responsible one, when he was the one who had lost more than any of them; his adult teammates could act like self-indulgent children without the excuse of the guilt that lay heavily across the back of Omi’s tongue, and he had to bear both it and their behavior. He shoved it down, the act taking less effort than he’d thought, and crossed the floor. “Aya,” he said, putting a tentative hand on Aya’s shoulder. He expected to be shoved away, but Aya turned and clung to him instead, choked sobs shaking his entire frame.
“It’s okay,” Omi told him, swallowing the lie like acid. He didn’t blame Aya. He gently stroked Aya’s hair, whispering meaningless half-truths without paying attention to what he was saying until Aya calmed down. A hitch persisted in his breathing, but it was nearly even now, and Omi led him up the stairs as well. Aya went without protest, and the lack of resistance made the hair on the back of Omi’s neck stand on end.
Aya crawled into his bed with very little prompting as well, but when Omi turned to leave, Aya grabbed his wrist. “Stay,” he whispered, voice nearly unrecognizable. It was the first word Omi had heard from him all day, he realized, and Omi squeezed his eyes closed for a second before acquiescing. Aya so rarely asked for anything. He let Aya pull him downwards and curl around him as though Omi were an oversized teddy bear, and Omi felt fatigue washing over him. He fell asleep with Aya’s warm breath against the back of his neck, pretending it was Ken holding him, and that everything was all right.
Chapter 11: Moratorium
Yohji levered himself off the floor with a groan; he’d managed to miss the bed, somehow, despite it being right next to the door. In his defense, it was a sharp right turn. He’d managed to wedge himself between the desk and the bedframe, waking to feel the legs of the chair he never used pressed into the back of his skull. His scalp felt tender now, and he rubbed it. The other bed was empty and neatly made, Yohji could see when he stood, wavering just a little, Omi already awake and dressed and doing whatever it was he did.
The time since coming back to Tokyo had blurred together, and Yohji wasn’t entirely sure what day it was. Might have been Tuesday, he thought, or maybe Wednesday. He looked at his own bed, rumpled from where he’d slept in it the night before last and failed to make it in the morning, and considered crawling into it. The sky was the hard blue of full day, though, from what he could see out the window. Yohji grabbed the closest set of clean clothes he could find and made his way down to the bathing room on the second floor.
The sliding doors into the kitchen and living area were both closed, which might have been an indication that someone was in there, and might have been an indication that both Omi and Aya were in the shop. Yohji was fairly sure he’d taken at least one shift, but he found it hard to care about maintaining yet another cover. It wasn’t as though the shop was particularly busy anyway; nothing like the hordes of teenagers that had swarmed the Kitten in the House.
Yohji showered quickly, dumping his dirty clothes in the washing machine along with the rest of the pile in the basket, and rubbed fretfully at his forehead. It hurt, whatever he’d done the previous night wiping his memory clean but leaving him with the aftermath anyway. He thought about stepping onto the tiny second-floor balcony in the back of the house, strewn with empty hangers and clothes lines fastened to the corner column, but there was too much sun.
“Yohji?” he heard, and the sunlit balcony seemed like a better choice. He chose virtue instead, and stepped into the hallway.
“Omi,” he said, and couldn’t say anything else after all. Omi was pale, dark circles under his eyes, and it was Yohji’s fault. He was the one who’d played at being field leader, chosen Omi and the mission over Ken and Aya, and talked Omi into leaving his lover behind. Yohji couldn’t stand to look at him, not when Omi didn’t overtly blame him for any of it. If Omi would just give him the censure he deserved, Yohji could perform penance. But Omi withheld anything resembling an accusation, treating Yohji gently instead.
“Are you coming downstairs?” Omi asked.
“Yeah,” Yohji said, after far too long of a pause, and then went for the least awkward question possible. “Am I on shift today?”
“Thursday is your day in the cafe,” Omi said, which didn’t technically answer the question.
“And today is?” Yohji said, when Omi just kept looking at him expectantly.
“Thursday,” Omi said, with a hint of impatience.
“Shit.” Yohji rubbed his face. “I’ll be right there.” He slipped around Omi, heading into the kitchen for coffee before it occurred to him that he could have made something from the cafe stock. Too late now, he thought and eyed the half-full coffee pot on the kitchen counter. It smelled burnt, and he thought it might have been there the day before, as well. He poured it into a mug anyway, turning off the machine, and splashed cream into it.
“Yohji,” Omi said again.
“I’m going, I’m going.” Yohji ducked around him, barely managing not to spill the coffee. Omi was making the face that meant he had something else to say, and Yohji didn’t want to hear it. Kritiker had sent more than one psych specialist over for assessments disguised as support, and Yohji wasn’t about to play that game. If Kritiker wanted to evaluate him, they could do it openly or not at all.
“Aya’s going to be late,” Omi added. “I don’t think anyone will come into the cafe, but please handle it if they do.”
“Why, where’s Aya?” Yohji asked, but he already knew. Aya hadn’t tried to avoid Kritiker’s evaluations, which would have worried Yohji if he’d had the energy for it. Aya had never been particularly warm, or open with anything except his rage toward the family that had murdered his parents and stolen his sister, but Yohji didn’t think he’d seen much of anything other than a listless distinterest out of his teammate since he’d been rescued. “No, scratch that. What are you doing?”
“I have another test tomorrow,” Omi said, voice tight. “To make up for the fact that Kritiker sent us overseas two days before I was supposed to have final exams last summer. I want to graduate from high school, Yohji, is that too much to ask?”
Yohji bit his tongue before he could ask how Omi hadn’t graduated yet when all he apparently did was study, and then his traitorous brain tried to point out that neither Aya nor Ken had graduated high school either and Omi didn’t technically need a high school diploma. “Okay,” was what he trusted himself to say, after a pause that went on a little too long. “Good luck?”
“Just. Please, Yohji, please go maintain our cover,” Omi said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” Any other words Yohji might have said died on his tongue as he looked at Omi again; the kid was a wreck, and the least Yohji could do was to give him space. Maybe Omi would sleep a little, instead of studying, and it would ease the tension in his posture.
The coffee was as burnt as he’d thought it was, scalding his tongue and still managing to leave the taste of bitter regret. Yohji emptied the cup before he got down the stairs, trying and failing to wear a smile for the few people that did come to the shop. Aya eventually arrived, sulking into the cafe and turning on every light behind the counters.
One more day, Yohji thought, but waiting for Kritiker to make its decisions was a never-ending litany of one-more-days, and Yohji was finding it hard to muster up the energy to keep going. The sun tracked overhead, front of the shop always in shadow, and Yohji moved some of the light-loving plants out to the sidewalk. It made him feel almost good, to do something that helped instead of hurt, and he thought about installing grow lights inside the shop itself to carry the plants through the winter months.
Aya ignored the entire exercise, but Yohji was used to it. As closing time approached, Yohji took the plants back inside, feeling the warmth of the autumn sun, and brought the blinds down. “Definitely grow lights,” he murmured, but the shop ceiling caught his eye. Red and blue dotted the grooved ceiling, and the light switch Yohji had ignored because he didn’t recognize it turned out to be connected to lights already installed. “Hey, Aya,” he said, and flipped it on. “You missed one.”
No response was forthcoming from one sullen redhead, Aya just looking at Yohji through the fall of his hair. It was well below his shoulders now, longer than Yohji kept his, and Yohji wasn’t convinced Aya actually took care of it. It had the slightly tangled look of having been subjected to finger-combing before being given up on, and Yohji was struck by the urge to brush it out of Aya’s face. He thought Aya might take his hand off if he tried, and then thought that it might be worth it, if Aya were going to snap out of the lethargy that permeated every motion. He was paler than Omi, even.
As quickly as the impulse came, it drained away. “We can keep the plants alive better,” Yohji said instead, lamely, and Aya just kept looking at him as if he didn’t care enough to look somewhere else. Yohji turned around and started on the post-closing inventory. He took his time, hearing Aya eventually walk slowly across the floor and toward the stairs, and Yohji found himself relaxing when the door clicked closed behind his teammate.
“Am I the only sane one here,” he sang quietly, a partially remembered melody from a song that he wasn’t sure existed. The inventory and receipts were done, but he lingered near the flowers, brushing his fingers across them. “Maybe I should move some of you closer to the lights.”
Before Yohji could act on his words, the door burst open again. He flinched, the reaction brief before he remembered his training and experience and fell into a defensive stance with an eye toward the nearest object that could be used as a weapon. He had his hand on an empty clay planter saucer, lifting it smoothly and aiming it at the noise before his brain caught up with the rest of him, and he recognized Aya standing in the doorway. Incongruously, Yohji noticed that Aya was in sock feet.
“What?” he said, keeping the saucer in hand just in case. It was heavy, made of ceramic that would shatter into a sharp edge if need be. None of the reasons he could think of for Aya to have come flying down the stairs were good ones.
“Yohji,” Aya said, and then his words appeared to fail him.
“What?” Yohji said again, starting to relax. If there had been an imminent threat, Aya wouldn’t be standing and staring at him, he reasoned, and put the planter down. “You have to tell me what’s wrong.”
“Yohji,” Aya said again, his mouth working and failing to produce any further sounds.
Goddammit. Yohji glanced around at the shop; there was nothing further to do that would let him send Aya up to Omi to deal with. He tried anyway, because in the few moments Aya wasn’t apathetic he was a puddle of distress, and Yohji didn’t have the patience to handle it. Omi was good at it, and it was just easier to let Omi work through his own nerves by keeping Aya calm. “Where’s Omi?” he asked.
Aya just shook his head and started toward the stairs. Yohji winced as Aya stepped on the first stair with socks that had been on the shop floor, but it wasn’t the worst part of the day by a long shot. Aya paused, looking over his shoulder, and Yohji tried not to sigh.
“I’m coming,” he said.
Aya kept glancing behind him, as though he thought Yohji would disappear if he wasn’t paying attention, and each time Yohji tried to give him a reassuring smile. Aya padded to the half-open sliding door into the living room and stood against the wall just on the other side of it. Yohji glanced through the door, but all he saw was the dining room table – empty – and the sliding doors to the two small balconies – closed.
“What?” he said.
No verbal answer was forthcoming, just Aya staring straight ahead of him. Yohji did sigh this time, tempted to push Aya farther into the room so he could walk through the door unimpeded. He squeezed past his teammate, turning to the small nook that passed as a living room, with its couch and low table and the television that none of them used.
Omi was sitting on the couch, hands on his lap, books open on the table in front of him. His eyes were open, but Yohji wasn’t sure what he was looking at. Nothing seemed out of place. Omi was breathing, Yohji noted in passing. “What do you want me to see?” he said to Aya.
“He’s,” Aya said, and paused. “He won’t talk,” he said in a small voice.
“He talks,” Yohji said, and moved the short distance across the floor to the couch. “Omi,” he said.
Omi didn’t so much as blink. Yohji frowned and touched him on the shoulder, and then shook him gently, neither of which produced a response. For a brief horrible moment, Yohji thought Omi wasn’t breathing after all, but then he consciously saw the slow rise and fall of Omi’s chest.
“What the hell,” he said. Omi’s pulse was strong and regular, his breathing even. Yohji snapped his fingers in front of Omi’s eyes, and then slapped him lightly. Nothing. Omi’s skin was warm, under Yohji’s hands, but not hot. Yohji waved a hand in front of Omi’s face, just to see if his eyes were tracking at all, but there was still nothing.
Behind Yohji, Aya was breathing shallowly and quickly. The sound registered abruptly, and Yohji turned around. “Now is not the time,” he said sharply, and Aya’s breath caught in his throat, his eyes wide.
“Ken -” he started.
“This is Omi,” Yohji said, and Aya blinked. Some of the color came back to his face and he looked around the room as though he hadn’t known where he was. He flushed a dull red and kept himself pressed against the wall, looking down. Yohji turned back to Omi; one problem at a time. “Okay, kid,” he said. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but cut it out. You’re freaking Aya out.”
“Shut up,” Aya muttered.
Omi blinked slowly, eyes still blank, even seven methods of awakening someone later. Yohji rubbed the back of his neck, frustrated, and handed the damp towel to Aya. “We can either wait for him to wake up or call EMS.”
“Or Kritiker,” Aya said tentatively. “Persia should be notified.”
“And then he really will deactivate all of us,” Yohji said under his breath. “Probably,” he said aloud. “I’ll -”
“I’ll do it,” Aya interrupted, sounding almost like himself for the first time in days, imperious and insistent on taking control of every detail.
“Fine. Whatever. I’m going to shower.” Yohji headed down the hall, and Aya didn’t stop him.
Voices floated from behind the still partially-closed living room door after Yohji emerged, damp and in clean clothes again. His skin was still crawling, the sense of wrongness and the sinking feeling that he was still letting the rest of his team down refusing to be cleansed with soap and water. Aya’s voice was recognizable, words indistinct, and Yohji had a moment of hope that Omi had snapped out of whatever it had been that had kept him still.
The second voice was too high-pitched, and Yohji stepped through the door barefoot to see Manx staring down at Omi. “Hello, darling,” he said, and she raised an eyebrow at him.
“Good afternoon, Balinese,” she said. “Abyssinian has briefed me on Bombay’s condition.”
“How is he?” Yohji said. Aya had relocated to the couch, Omi leaning against his shoulder. Omi’s eyes were closed, Yohji noticed, and he was now completely limp, as though asleep instead of simply unaware. His breathing seemed easier, a little deeper than before, and Aya was stroking one forearm in a matching rhythm.
“No change.” Aya pulled Omi just a little closer, but Omi might have been a mannequin for all he responded to the change in position. “Manx said,” he began, and then glanced at Omi again.
Yohji turned his attention to their handler, who was waiting with an impatient air. “You got here quickly,” he said, realizing after he said it that Manx had either been closer than he’d been given to believe or had stumbled on truly fortuitous timing.
“I had prior instructions,” Manx said. “Weiß was to be reactivated, on a trial basis. I see some adjustments will have to be made.”
“Weiß is a four-man team,” Yohji reminded her.
“Yes,” Manx said. “Weiß will continue to operate with four members.”
“You can’t do that,” Yohji said. Weiß didn’t just have four slots to be filled; it had a very specific roster, which Manx was proposing be changed with no notice and no thought for how it would affect the workings of the team. “Siberian and Bombay -”
“Siberian’s file has been closed,” Manx said, voice completely even until the condescending lilt at the end. Yohji flushed at the insult.
“Bombay,” he started.
“Is clearly not field-ready,” Manx said smoothly. “A temporary field leader will be assigned.”
“You still want us to go out on a mission?”
Manx held up a hand to stop whatever else Yohji might have said before he could get going. “As I told Abyssinian, Weiß has an assignment. Bombay was part of those plans as well, but his status will have to be changed.”
“I’m not going on any damn mission until I know what’s wrong with Omi,” Yohji said.
“You’ll follow your instructions,” Manx said, a note of steel threading through her voice.
“Weiß has always been given the choice to accept or reject an assignment.” Yohji matched her tone, cadence for cadence.
“Weiß has always performed up to par,” Manx retorted.
It was Yohji’s turn to flush. “Fine,” he said. “Give us the mission parameters, but we’re still not going anywhere until we know that Omi’s being taken care of.”
“Transportation is on its way,” Manx said, and as if on cue, flashing lights colored the street below in red. She held out an envelope, stiff white paper with no markings on the outside.
Yohji opened his mouth to tell her that she could keep it, but Aya derailed the conversation by picking Omi up and stepping toward the door. He gave Yohji an expectant look, and Yohji moved out of his way, hands up. Aya carried Omi down the stairs, Yohji trailing behind and leaving Manx to open the private side entrance for the paramedics. Aya arranged Omi on the stretcher, ignoring the questions and leaving Yohji to explain as best he could what had happened.
“We’ll follow,” Yohji said finally. Neither of them needed to ride in the ambulance, and the one thing Kritiker had done right – as far as Yohji was concerned – was to deliver his car to the safehouse. “We’ll be right behind them,” he said to Aya, before Aya could argue.
Manx followed them smoothly. “You both need to be debriefed,” she said, envelope still in hand.
“You need to pick another temporary substitute,” Yohji said. “I imagine that might change the debriefing slightly.”
Manx’s mouth twisted slightly. “Take your comms,” she said, handing them both the equipment in question. Yohji smiled tightly at her, fastening it into place over his ear. Aya followed suit, expressionless now that Omi was out of sight again. “We’ll be in touch,” Manx added.
Keeping up with an ambulance without actively breaking traffic laws wasn’t easy on the best of days, and in rush hour traffic it turned into an exercise in frustration. By the time Yohji parked the car at the hospital where Omi was supposed to be and made his way inside, Omi had been seen, diagnosed, and treated.
“He’s responding well,” Yohji was told.
“To what,” Yohji said. “Because he wouldn’t answer us.”
1.5 milligrams of lorazepam was apparently the method of waking Omi up that hadn’t been tried back at the safehouse. Yohji made a face at the doctor’s retreating back after no satisfactory explanation could be given of Omi’s catatonic episode.
“What do you mean, infection,” Yohji said, because Omi hadn’t complained of the still-healing wound in his side bothering him at all, but the only person to listen to him was Aya. “How long is he going to be stuck in here this time?”
The look Aya gave Yohji suggested that Yohji would be better off paying attention to what he was told the first time around, followed by Aya turning around without a word and walking into Omi’s room. Yohji rolled his eyes at the ceiling, since no one wanted to pay attention to him at all, and followed. Maybe he could at least make Omi feel a little better.
The brief non-conversation still echoed through Yohji’s mind hours later, as he worked his way carefully toward his assigned position for the mission Manx had still assigned to the still-functioning half of Weiß. He hadn’t told Omi about the team’s reactivation, and neither had Aya; the problem Omi was fixated on was missing his placement tests again, and Yohji had promised to try to help him work out a solution. Omi had spoken slowly and haltingly, clearly frustrated at not being able think straight, and Yohji had wanted in no way to make him feel worse.
Keeping the mission from Omi the following day was more difficult; Omi was alert and aware, chafing at being told he wasn’t to be discharged until the next morning and his compliance with any and all instructions sullen at best. It was the sulkiness that let Yohji know that Omi wasn’t up to field work again, more than the way Omi was still favoring his left side, more than the puffy redness peeking out from underneath the bandage despite a bag of liquid with a terrifying name dripping into the line attached to Omi’s wrist.
“I would sleep better at home,” Omi muttered.
“Can’t leave with the IV still in your arm,” Yohji told him.
Omi glared. “I can take it out.”
“You will do no such thing.” Yohji patted him on the head, obnoxiously. “Not following instructions is what got you back in here. Twice.”
“I followed instructions.” Omi crossed his arm, wincing when it tugged on the tubing, and smacked the side rail with his free hand. “Don’t put this on me.”
“We’ll see you tomorrow.” Yohji switched to ruffling Omi’s hair instead, smoothly dodging to the side when Omi attempted to push his hand away. “Sleep tight.”
“I’m not really mad at you,” Omi said, when Yohji had reached the doorway.
“I know,” Yohji told him. “Feel better, ok?” Two hours and a short briefing later, he was in the field.
“Balinese, in position,” he said into the comms. The assignment was supposed to be fairly simple, in and out, blood at the end and then a strategic retreat complete with minor explosions to destroy key pieces of evidence. The target wouldn’t be heavily guarded, according to Kritiker’s information, and only half the team was supposed to enter the location at all. Yohji had been assigned his least favorite duty – placing explosives outside the building and then watching as the rest of the team did the actual work.
“Abyssinian, in position,” he heard, and there was some comfort in knowing that Aya was just as frustrated as he was.
“Calico, in position.” The timbre of the voice was too high, almost sweet, and while Yohji had no more doubts about her skills than any other agent with whom he hadn’t worked before, the sound was like nails across a chalkboard. She wasn’t Omi, or Ken, and working with a woman brought up shades of Yohji’s partner in his former life in all the wrong ways. He shifted, trying to dispel the impending sense of dread.
“Angora, in position.”
The second source of Yohji’s discomfort sounded cocky in the way that could only be managed by those who hadn’t been tempered by failure, and Yohji clenched his teeth. He told himself he wasn’t annoyed at taking orders from someone so many years younger – Angora was, allegedly, some kind of prodigy – but that he was basing his evaluation on his years of experience. It didn’t help.
“Calico, advance thirty meters and hold until I give the signal. You and I will handle the target.” Angora’s voice washed through the speakers again, and Yohji felt another prickle of irritation. “Abyssinian, remain at the rear entrance. Balinese, provide cover for Abyssinian as needed.”
Part of the frustration Yohji felt was being relegated to backup duty; he could be honest enough with himself to admit that he had a higher opinion of himself and his skills, and he didn’t feel that Angora was using his skills correctly. “Teenage brain hasn’t finished developing,” he said, too quietly for the comms to pick up. “Understood,” he added more loudly.
“I’m going in,” Angora said. “Calico, on my mark.”
“Got it,” Calico said, demonstrating that she knew how to follow directions, at least.
Yohji glanced toward Aya, catching his eye. You okay? he mouthed. Aya nodded tightly, barely visible in his chosen spot, and returned his attention to the rear entrance. Yohji grimaced. He was farther away, a few meters down the street, conveniently out of sight of the camera that occasionally panned over in their direction. He had it timed, he thought, and could predict when it was safe to move.
“I’m in,” Angora said softly, and Yohji let Aya send the acknowledgment. He was well aware that if he and Aya didn’t perform up to expectations on this mission and every assignment that followed, they would both be labeled as liabilities. Omi would go down by association, unless he managed to leverage his name into something salvageable. That an overconfident high school dropout was to be their primary evaluator rankled; Yohji made a face at the door, and elected to ignore the fact that technically, his entire team was composed of high school dropouts.
The building remained quiet, and the signal to Calico didn’t come. Yohji glanced at the visible windows and then at the camera down the street. It was pointing in his direction, and he waited until it rotated away before moving through the shadows to stand opposite Aya. He covered his microphone with his hand. “Something’s not right,” he said.
“Obviously.” Aya loosened his katana in its sheath. “Calico, have you received the signal?”
“Negative, Abyssinian.” She was on the roof, six and a half floors up and out of their line of sight. “Should I – I should go in.”
Yohji pinched the bridge of his nose. “Abyssinian and I will take point. Stay put until we tell you to move.”
“With all due respect,” Calico said, and swallowed audibly. “I’m next after Angora. I’ll take point. Follow me in thirty seconds. Meet at the target’s expected location. Calico out.” Her comm clicked off.
“Goddammit,” Yohji swore. Calico wasn’t experienced enough to be in charge of anything; he would have known even if he hadn’t seen what little of her file Manx had been willing to share. The only reason she was nominally second in command, so to speak, was because Kritiker didn’t trust his judgment, or Aya’s, not after New York. “I wouldn’t fucking trust me either, but I wouldn’t put a rookie in charge,” he said. “Aya, let’s move.”
“It’s supposed to be a milk run,” Aya reminded him, and Yohji nearly tripped at the uncharacteristic words.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered. “In we go.” The silence shattered almost the second Aya threw open the door, and Yohji had a confused impression of far more hostiles than Kritiker’s intelligence had accounted for before he was fighting for his life.
“Roof,” Aya said, blade singing. He moved efficiently, and Yohji fell into a pattern he’d danced a thousand times before, wire hissing through the space around him. The fifth – and top – floor arrived sooner than he’d expected, and Aya made as if to keep going toward the roof level.
“Target,” Yohji reminded him, and Aya changed directions without missing a beat.
Instead of the middle-aged businessman Kritiker had assigned them to murder, Angora came staggering out of a side hallway, the side of his gray jacket liberally stained with red and his eyes wide. Aya pulled the automatic strike just enough to pass the blade over Angora’s head instead of catching him in the neck. Angora didn’t seem to notice.
“Target’s dead,” he said, voice shaking so much that Yohji almost couldn’t understand what he said. “They’re – there was someone else here.”
“Balinese, confirm,” Abyssinian said, and Yohji blinked once.
“Roger that,” he said. The wave of hostiles let up just enough for him to move past Angora and into the target’s office; the man was dead and on display, pinned to the ceiling in a gruesome picture. His throat had been slit with multiple blades, the white of bone showing. Balinese glanced around the room for any other pertinent information, but there was nothing except a broken window. He crossed the room to peer out of it; it wasn’t within reach of a fire escape, but shattered glass crunched under Balinese’s boots. “The window was broken from the outside,” he said.
“Get back here,” Angora said, sounding more like the arrogant brat Balinese remembered from half an hour ago. “We’re leaving.”
“Where’s Calico?” Balinese asked, making his way out of the office.
“On the roof, where I left her,” Angora snapped.
“She’s inside.” Balinese did not grab Angora and shake him; how the boy didn’t know where his team was, when all of their movements had been broadcast over the comms, was a shortcoming he could not tolerate in a field leader. “She should be heading this way.”
“Found her.” Abyssinian cut across Balinese’s rant before it got going. “I need assistance.”
“On my way.” Balinese reached Abyssinian just ahead of Angora’s outraged protest; Calico had been thrown over Abyssinian’s shoulder and he was carrying her without a visible sense of strain, but he couldn’t use his weapon. “Out we go.”
By the time they got out of the building and detonated the charges, Angora in tow, Balinese was exhausted. It had been too long since he’d used the wire, and he’d let his training go. His lungs hurt, and the smoke was just reminding him that he wanted a cigarette. Abyssinian thrust Calico at Angora and he stumbled, catching her just in time. She flipped Abyssinian off and found her footing.
“You didn’t need to carry me,” she said, sounding much more sure of herself than she had when she went into the building. “Ow.”
“You were favoring your right ankle,” Abyssinian said. “You wouldn’t have been fast enough.”
“Arrogant prick,” Calico said, but Balinese didn’t think Abyssinian heard her. He was halfway to their getaway car, meters ahead of the rest of them, and Calico’s comm was still off. Angora was leaning on her more heavily now, and she was indeed limping. Balinese took the rest of Angora’s weight, and she threw him a grateful look.
“Welcome to the glamorous world of Kritiker,” Balinese said. He’d tried to say Weiß, but the word wouldn’t come.
“Yay,” Calico said, unenthusiastically. She flipped one of her tiny blades into her palm and back, the edge of it smeared with a dull red that she hadn’t had the sense to clean, and toggled something that set the metal crackling. It occurred to Balinese in that moment why she had insisted on calling her weapons stingers and then he thought it was something that should have been included in her introduction. Maybe it had been, and he just hadn’t noticed.
The post-mission instructions had included the location for meeting and potential debriefing, but no one was there when Balinese pulled up in the getaway car. He herded Angora and Calico out of the backseat, stripping out the plastic cover, and into the meeting location anyway. Abyssinian waited in the front seat, somehow having managed to avoid getting any sort of fluids on his jacket at all. His long coat had been lost in New York, and he’d declined to replace it. Yohji, whose gear hadn’t gone missing, appreciated the sentimentality, but it was odd to see an unfamiliar silhouette with Abyssinian’s movements.
“What do we do?” Calico asked. Her ankle had improved, on the ride over, and she wasn’t wincing when she put weight on it. Angora had wilted more, his jacket stuck to his side.
“Call your handler,” Yohji said. “Ask for instructions in getting him medical attention.”
“I’m fine,” Angora hissed, but he was wobbly on his feet. Yohji pushed him into the nearest chair.
“There are guidelines,” Yohji told Calico. “Your handler can tell you what they are. I’m taking Abyssinian back.”
“Nothing’s wrong with Abyssinian,” Calico said, over the top of Angora’s contemptuous snort.
“Your handler,” Yohji said again. “The comms are open if you need more help,” he added, both to offer it to Calico and to annoy Angora further.
Manx was waiting at the safehouse when Yohji parked his car – not the getaway; he knew better than to use his own beloved vehicle for assignments – in front of the safehouse and followed Abyssinian inside. She sat behind the counter, invisible behind the closed blinds and eerily lit by the grow lights Yohji had turned on before he left. Only the fact that the door into the shop itself at the bottom of the stairs was open clued him in to her presence at all; he’d left it closed and locked.
“Well?” Manx said acidly.
“Well, what?” Yohji snapped. “Come in, please.” He sat down at one of the small tables in the cafe, the only one outside the small alcoves and therefore the only one with a view of the shop floor. Abyssinian dropped into the seat opposite him, leaving no open chair for Manx unless she went to collect one.
“What the hell was that?” Manx circled around the counter and crossed the floor, heels clicking loudly. Since she was capable of walking quietly in them when she wanted, Yohji assumed the noise was on purpose. He didn’t appreciate the attempt at intimidation, but he suspected Manx knew that, and wanted him to know she was annoyed more than anything else.
“That was a successful mission. Technically.” He lit a cigarette, bitter smoke calming the edges of his nerves, and then put it right back out. He wouldn’t be able to get the smell out of the air before opening tomorrow, and it wasn’t good for the merchandise.
“Kritiker field directives -” Manx started.
“The target is dead.” Yohji leaned forward. “It wasn’t us that got him. That window was broken from the outside. Five floors up, Manx.”
“I’ve heard from Angora,” Manx said.
“That was quick.” Yohji shredded the remains of his cigarette, fighting the urge to light it again.
“Don’t start with me, Kudo.” Manx leaned forward. “If you knew there were unrecognized hostiles in the area, your job was to get out and report.”
“We got out. We’ve apparently made our report. All four of us.” Yohji made himself sprawl in his chair, feigning a relaxation he didn’t feel.
“I just don’t want to see you get hurt.” Manx looked tired, and for a moment Yohji almost felt sorry for her. She’d been with them from the start, and it occurred to Yohji that it couldn’t have been easy to run interference between Kritiker and its teams.
“We’re fine,” Yohji said. “We know what we’re doing, Manx.”
It was the wrong thing to say. She glared at him, the fatigue fading from her face to be replaced with a hard mask. “You wouldn’t be on probation if that were true, Balinese.”
“The mission was completed,” Yohji said. “We didn’t have time to stick around and see who did it, but he was nailed to the ceiling.”
“Angora failed to mention that part,” Manx said, after a pause. “We’ll be in touch for your next assignment. Try not to pull a stunt like this again.”
She left, through the door connecting the shop to the stairs and out the private entrance. Yohji locked it behind her and stood waiting for Aya to follow him to the stairs.
“I’ll be up later,” Aya said, voice floating out of the dimness.
“Have it your way.” Yohji pulled out another cigarette and made his way up the stairs. Mission gear went into the washing machine, and he stood on the balcony in an old robe for as long as it took to push away the bubble of resentment that Kritiker wasn’t paying attention to potentially important information. “Fuck,” he said in English, unable to think of a better word to describe the circumstances.
Chapter 12: Disruption
“Good morning, Weiß.” Manx smiled, cheerful facade firmly in place. “How are you today?”
Aya glared at her, but – undeterred – she continued to project a bubblegum-insipid aura of bland good humor. He was fairly sure holding a briefing session in the cafe of the flowershop that was allegedly the heart of their cover identity defeated the purpose of having a cover identity to begin with. At least at Kitten in the House, the briefing room had been out of sight in the basement. Here, they might as well have been sitting on the sidewalk.
“It’s too early for the morning to be good,” Yohji said from the flowershop portion of the shop. He had started by checking the blinds, which were all lowered and fastened in place, but he was now shifting the merchandise and frowning at the grow lights.
“It’s seven,” Manx said tartly, the slightest bit of a crack showing at the edge of her veneer. “Hardly early.”
“Maybe not for you,” Yohji said in what might have been an undertone but was still loud enough to be heard across the room. “You didn’t get to play babysitter last night.”
“Take your seat, Balinese,” Manx said, and Yohji put down the small flowerpot he’d moved to three different spots while Aya had been watching before ambling slowly across the room and draping himself across a chair.
The mission the night before hadn’t been difficult; nothing like their first outing with a pair of inexperienced operatives and their target eliminated by someone who’d waltzed into a fifth-floor room without a fire escape, if Yohji was to be believed. Abyssinian had been a little too busy not accidentally killing their temporary team leader and almost single-handedly keeping the target’s hordes of minions at bay to verify Yohji’s report, but it wasn’t as though Balinese didn’t know how to assess an environment.
The problem had been the third straight rookie operative in a row, as if Calico weren’t enough, and that the mission the night before had been the third in as many nights. None of them had been complicated and none of them had required a great deal of research or preparation; the first two had been carried out by Balinese and Abyssinian plus one rookie, and Calico had rejoined them the night before to make a four-man team once again.
“So who’s the lucky toddler this time?” Yohji asked. Calico, sitting at the other table inside the small nook with her back against the wall, frowned at the remark but had the sense to keep her mouth shut. She’d been completely boxed in when Aya had made a point of sitting across from her, and Yohji had made it worse by taking the other outside seat. Manx, leaning against the single table not placed within one of the two nooks making up most of the cafe, had raised an eyebrow, but Aya hadn’t felt the need to interpret whether it was censure of Calico’s choice of seat or his own.
“Will Angora be returning?” Aya asked, smoothly interrupting Yohji and trying to keep the conversation on something resembling neutral ground.
“Angora will not return to Weiß,” Manx said, and she was glaring at him as though he were the one speaking inappropriately.
“Oh?” Yohji sat up a little straighter. “Is Cheetoh coming back, then?”
“No, Balinese,” Manx said. “Chartreux will not be returning to Weiß either.”
“How about Ragdoll, then? I liked Ragdoll.” Yohji grinned, and Aya wondered briefly if Yohji had gone out after they’d gotten home the night before. Lack of sleep or still being drunk, either one would explain his persistent attempts to annoy Manx.
“Raas,” Manx said, emphasizing the correct codename for the second time, “will not be returning, either. Both Raas and Chartreux have expressed appreciation for the learning experience.”
“Hn.” Aya felt his reaction was entirely justified, particularly given that he didn’t think either Raas nor Chartreux – ridiculous codenames, both of them – had been on a mission at all before going on their milk runs with Weiß. Manx glared at him again, instead of rebuking Yohji. “Are we getting a fourth member?” he asked politely.
Manx sighed audibly. “Abyssinian, Bombay will return to the team when he has been medically cleared,” she said. “Improper care of the wound he received in New Jersey is the root of his current condition. You cannot have him back yet.”
Aya retreated into a dignified silence.
“As I was saying,” Manx continued. “The mission consists of...”
Working with a constant stream of new people was exhausting; Aya didn’t mind, specifically, that Manx had set them up to act as guides or mentors for new operatives, but he wished she would come out and say what she was doing. It was easier to plan strategy around Siberian’s quick efficiency and Bombay’s adaptibility, to have an idea of what the rest of his team might do in case of a crisis and react accordingly.
“...Abyssinian and Cyprus,” Manx said.
Aya glanced up to see her looking expectantly at him. “Excuse me?” he said, annoyed that he’d lost focus and trying to keep it out of his voice.
“Generally,” Yohji cut in, “I’d be doing this type of infiltration. Since it’s a club.”
Searching his recent memory for any threads of the conversation that might have sunk in gave him no clues, but Aya didn’t think he was the best person to put on point for a mission involving a club. Yohji would be much more at home than he would. Manx’s eyes narrowed, and she glanced over at Yohji.
“Abyssinian isn’t going to be part of a honey trap,” she said. “It’s better if he looks out of place, in order to draw the target out.”
“I should be his backup,” Yohji said. “Given my experience -”
“Your experience is the problem,” Manx said. “You’re comfortable in that environment and it’s obvious.”
“Cyprus and I could act as backup,” Calico said, tentatively.
“Since we’re not sure of the pattern, we need one male and one female operative,” Manx said patiently. “Neither of you should look as though you belong. Once the target makes his – or her – move, the rest of the team will follow.”
Aya capitulated, looking away from Manx, darkly sure that the entire mission was going to be a disaster. His predictions remained the same through the shift at the flowershop, busier than usual, and he only became more certain when he and Yohji arrived at the pre-mission checkpoint to meet Cyprus for the first time.
“Abyssinian,” she said, voice high-pitched and sweet. “Balinese.” She looked like a doll, dark hair artfully curled and tumbled, held together with glittering red thread, and porcelain skin that all but glowed in the shadows.
“This is Cyprus,” Calico said from behind her. She’d figured out how to blend into the background a little better, Aya noticed, and she’d darkened her red hair to something a little less likely to shine in unexpected lighting.
“You already know who we are,” Balinese said. Abyssinian said nothing; he wasn’t there to speak.
“This is the plan,” Cyprus said, and her voice dropped two octaves, taking on a clipped and harsh tone. It was at odds with the pink and white frills she was wearing, and her mission briefing was disorganized at best. Abyssinian listened anyway, letting Balinese ask for clarification at the points that needed it. Balinese, at least, missed nothing.
“Ready?” Cyprus glanced around. Calico nodded, and Balinese gave her the smile he used on targets. Cyprus flushed slightly and turned to Abyssinian. “You too?”
“Ready,” he said. The katana couldn’t be disguised in the outfit Yohji had chosen for Abyssinian to act as bait, but he had knives in his boots. He wouldn’t be defenseless.
“Good luck,” Balinese said, and Abyssinian nodded once in thanks. He followed Cyprus at a distance and a delay, the two of them arriving several minutes apart and entering the club with no difficulty.
The longer Abyssinian spent in the club, the more he disliked it. The comm in his ear felt slick with heat, he couldn’t predict the movements of the crowd around him, and his hair kept sticking to his neck. He couldn’t push it back without exposing the comm, and he pulled at his shirt instead. At one point, he thought he saw a familiar shock of orange hair gyrating on the dance floor, and adrenaline flooded his body as he prepared to fend off the rival assassins of Schwarz, but when he looked again it was gone.
Don’t be ridiculous, he thought. If they were in Japan, you’d know about it. Kritiker would know about it.
“Buy you a drink?” said a voice almost in his ear – the one without the comm, fortunately – and Abyssinian nearly gave himself away by flinching.
“I guess,” he said without thinking. The owner of the voice was older than he was, but not by much, and had an air of confidence that almost outweighed his poor choice of clothing. Abyssinian made himself smile anyway; the face wasn’t in the list of potential associates that might accompany the target, and he had to maintain his cover. Mission parameters dictated water only, but when poured over ice, it at least looked like he was drinking something else. “Another one of the same,” Abyssinian added.
“Oh, I think you could be a little more adventurous.” The man smiled and gestured to the bartender.
“I don’t think -” Abyssinian started.
“Just drink it,” Cyprus said in his ear. “I can see you from here, and one of the target’s associates is eyeing you both.”
“Don’t think what?” the man said, raising an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” Abyssinian said, and the man relaxed. The bartender handed over two glasses, one a bright poisonous red and the other perfectly clear. The man handed Abyssinian the clear drink and raised the other in a sardonic salute.
“Cheers.” He drained the glass in almost a single swallow, putting it back on the counter with a clink of ice cubes, and waited expectantly.
Abyssinian couldn’t match the feat, giving up halfway through. The taste was awful, searing and bitter, and he coughed as he put the glass down. The man chuckled at Abyssinian’s expression.
“You did well,” he said, and for some reason Abyssinian felt warm at the praise. The music pressed against his skin, wrapping itself around his heart, and the club seemed brighter.
“Thank you,” he managed to remember to say. It was the last clear impression he had.
The walls seemed to vibrate, shrill sounds drilling into one ear, and he knew that it was very important to keep the ear hidden but the noise wouldn’t stop. He shook his head and it didn’t help. The man led him over to someone else, smiling with shark’s teeth, and the chaos in his ear got louder. The new individual was dressed incongruously in a suit and tie, in a shady back corner that was a welcome relief after the piercing lights of the dance floor.
“I don’t know,” Abyssinian said. He hadn’t heard whatever the new person had said, not over the music and not over the racket in his ear. The new person threw back his head and laughed, standing and putting an arm around Abyssinian to lead him out of the public area entirely.
There was a reason Abyssinian shouldn’t follow this person, he was sure of it. The face was familiar, now that he could see it more closely, but the ground tilted under his feet. It was cool outside, the breeze welcome against his overheated skin, and then it was like ice and he shivered. The man pulled him a little closer, and Abyssinian was torn between accepting the warmth and trying to fulfill a task that wouldn’t come to mind.
“Lost little kitten,” Aya heard, in his ears and in his head, the voice horribly familiar. He tripped, unsure where to look and who was his target – target, that’s it, this is the man I’m supposed to kill – and his katana was gone. So was his jacket. Large hands steadied his shoulders, the warmth of skin against his collarbone, and Aya looked up into another familiar face. It didn’t match the voice, hair too dark and eyes hidden.
The buzzing of words that wouldn’t separate out into syllables echoed in his ears, and the face in front of him blurred again, green eyes that should have been full of warmth staring down at him with a lack of recognition. “Ken,” Aya said, and blinked. Ken’s face dissolved into the worried face of-
“...ya,” said Yohji, except that it was supposed to be Balinese. Aya brought up a hand to rub the stickiness out of his eyes, and it was strangely heavy. He felt the weight against his palm begin to teeter and convulsively tightened his grip. “Okay, let me have that,” Balinese said, and tugged the knife out of his hand. It was smeared with dark along the blade.
“The target,” Aya said, tongue thick in his mouth.
“Yeah, you got him, good job.” The knife was gone, and Balinese was pulling him upright. The world spun, Balinese the only solid part of it.
“No,” Aya said. That wasn’t right. “Schwarz,” he tried to say, but Balinese just frowned at him. “Ken,” Aya told him, but the sounds fell apart on his tongue and he woke up in his own bed with sunlight streaming through the window. The light hurt his eyes and his tongue felt like sandpaper, and Aya had the sense that he’d forgotten something important.
Yohji was in the kitchen when Aya made his way down the stairs, the steps jarring his aching skull. He wanted to cry, tears pricking at the inside of his eyelids for no good reason, and he pushed them away. The coffee maker exuded the burnt scent that meant Yohji had made coffee and then just left it instead of turning it off and cleaning it up.
“Morning, sleeping beauty,” Yohji said. He was leaning on the counter, backlit by the indirect light shining through the blinds. That hurt Aya’s eyes, too, and he held up a hand to shade them. “Yeah,” Yohji added. “Cyprus said to tell you she’s sorry about that.”
“No, she didn’t,” Aya said. Some of his memories of the night before were surfacing, oozing slowly upward and spreading out behind his eyes. There had been a mission, and he’d followed the wrong instructions.
“Well, she should have.” Yohji fished in the cupboard for an empty mug and held it out. “She shouldn’t have told you to drink that.”
“I shouldn’t have listened.” Aya took the mug. He knew better than to accept what a target’s associate gave him, even if he hadn’t specifically recognized said associate.
“But we caught another one,” Yohji said brightly. “You got the target.”
“I need to shower,” Aya said. “Laundry.” It occurred to him that Yohji would have just dumped him in bed, if he’d been as out of it as his memory implied, and he couldn’t stand the thought of the mission touching his skin while he slept.
“Nothing wrong with your sheets, but you can shower again if you want to,” Yohji said.
“Again?” Aya frowned. His hands were clean, he noticed.
“You’re a stubborn son of a bitch,” Yohji told him, sipping his no doubt cold coffee.
Aya turned on his heel and left, heading for the shower anyway. The warm spray of water called up another mental image of Yohji hovering with an expression of concern while Aya scrubbed at the spreading red on his palms. Yohji had taken the cloth out of his hands, Aya thought, and wiped away a spot on his collarbone. The memory triggered another one, warm hands on his shoulders and Ken’s face.
“You’re seeing ghosts,” Aya told himself, and let the guilt push the tears to the surface.
Manx left the two of them alone for a few days after that, barring a brief visit to look Aya up and down and pronounce his performance as acceptable.
“I let the target incapacitate me entirely,” he told her. “The only reason the mission succeeded -”
“Balinese reports you took out the target before the rest of Weiß arrived,” Manx said briskly. “You were fine. Weiß is off probationary status.”
Aya bit his lip. “Does that include Omi?” he asked.
“Bombay’s status will be evaluated once he’s reactivated,” Manx said.
Rather than argue Weiß into a precarious position again – which wouldn’t help Omi, and wouldn’t help Yohji, and Aya knew he wouldn’t make the same mistake again – Aya kept his mouth shut. “When will that be?” he said instead.
“He’s to be discharged tomorrow,” Manx said. “We’ll see, after that.”
The guilt that Aya hadn’t gone to see their teammate since he’d been hospitalized yet again crystallized into a sharp pain, and he inhaled sharply.
“Is something wrong?” Manx asked. Her face was a mask of what Aya knew was false concern, no matter how long Manx had been their handler. Kritiker cared about Weiß only so long as its members were useful.
“No,” he said, and she nodded before leaving Aya to reflect on the myriad ways he’d failed Weiß as a team and his teammates as individuals.
Picking Omi up from the hospital with his more or less clean bill of health didn’t make up for not checking on his teammate, but Omi just smiled at him instead of blaming him. Aya made himself smile back, and Omi blinked. “Who are you and what have you done with Aya?” he said, voice warm and light and just the tiniest bit breathless.
Aya felt the smile slide off his face. “I -” he said.
“I’m joking.” Omi looked at him worriedly, blue eyes shadowed. It wasn’t supposed to be Omi taking responsibility for Weiß, not injured as he was; as field leader, it was Aya’s place to support his team.
“Are you ready?” Aya asked, trying to salvage something out of the moment.
“I need to stop by the pharmacy.” Omi made a face of annoyance. “Then we’re good to go.”
There were too many little orange bottles in the rustling paper bag Omi walked away with, after carefully confirming with the pharmacist what was supposed to be taken when, and Omi tucked it into his backpack with an air of self-consciousness. “So I hear you and Yohji got to babysit new operatives,” he said, just a little too cheerfully.
“Hn.” Aya glanced at the street before leading Omi to Yohji’s car; the other man had still been asleep when it had come time for Omi to be picked up, and Aya had made the decision to both close the shop and borrow Yohji’s keys.
“Any of them any good?” Omi’s eyes widened at the sight of the car without Yohji. “Does he know you have this?”
“No,” Aya said shortly, and let Omi work out that he was answering both questions.
Omi stared at him for a second and then broke into the first real smile Aya had seen out of him in longer than he could remember. “I missed you,” he said, and Aya couldn’t take the sincerity in his gaze. He got in the car, and after a moment, Omi followed suit.
“Manx,” Aya began, awkwardly, after they’d escaped the maze of the hospital parking lot. Omi needed to know that their old rivals had shown up in Tokyo again, and that Manx – and by extension, Kritiker – were ignoring their presence.
“I talked to her,” Omi said. “But she won’t clear me for field work for another couple of weeks.”
Aya nodded automatically; Omi didn’t look as though he should be participating in field work, if Aya were to be objective about it. He was moving stiffly, and Aya could see him still favoring his left side. He didn’t look as though he’d been sleeping, either. The news about Schwarz could wait; it wasn’t as though they were going to show up at the safehouse. Aya cast around for another topic, one that might not be less of a minefield until Omi was back on his feet. “How are your tests?” he asked.
“Ugh.” Omi grimaced. “I have to take both of the remaining placement tests next week, and then they’ll let me start my last semester in April.”
“I see.” There wasn’t much else to say to that, and Aya tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He wanted to fidget, and he didn’t know where the urge was coming from. He didn’t have any trouble sitting still, and yet he wanted to tap his fingers on the steering wheel and shift around in his seat.
“Is something wrong?” Omi asked.
“No.” Aya wasn’t going to make things worse for Omi. He wouldn’t add to the weight he could all but see on his teammate’s shoulders.
“I see.” Omi turned away, staring out the window for the remainder of the ride, and Aya was left with the obscure sense that he’d done something wrong anyway.
The sense didn’t abate, with Omi’s return to the safehouse he’d been in so briefly, and Aya had a jarring sensation of dissonance that he hadn’t felt when it had been just him and Yohji. The shop was the wrong layout, the living space above it divided into the wrong set of spaces. There was a distinct lack, which Aya took far too long to identify as Ken’s absence. More than once, he woke in the middle of the night convinced that he was in the wrong bedroom before he recognized the space as the safehouse and not his former apartment above the Kitten in the House.
Spending as little time as possible outside his bedroom didn’t help, but it also meant Aya didn’t have to look at his teammates. The three of them occupying the same space highlighted what was missing, and he couldn’t stop probing at the lack. The view out of the window, the wrong part of Tokyo, the wrong walls and the wrong streets, was hard to look at, and Aya kept the blinds closed.
“Aya.” The knock on his door was insistent, and Aya didn’t want to answer it. “Aya,” came Yohji’s voice again.
“What,” he said, throwing the door open and glaring.
Yohji looked back at him, undeterred. “It’s Monday. You’re in the cafe on Mondays.”
“We haven’t been here long enough to have a stable rotating schedule,” Aya said.
“Just because we’ve been here for all of three weeks doesn’t mean we don’t have a schedule,” Yohji informed him. “And you’re on it.”
Aya grumbled, but he made it to the cafe, cleaned up and presentable, only to find the shutters still closed and a familiar figure in a lilac suit standing nonchalantly in the middle of Yohji’s floral displays.
“I thought I was supposed to open the cafe,” he said. Kritiker didn’t do morning briefings, he’d thought, but here Birman was. Manx had been conducting their briefings at the wrong times, too, it occurred to him.
“You will.” Birman flashed an insincere smile. Aya glanced over at the nooks. Cyprus and Calico were both properly positioned in outside seats. Aya sat at the open table, leaning against the wall, and folded his arms. “We’re waiting for Balinese,” Birman said.
Yohji expressed no surprise at finding the shop closed and full of Kritiker operatives, and Aya deduced that either Yohji had known about Birman before he’d hauled Aya out of his room or he’d found her before Aya had made it downstairs. He decided he was annoyed that Yohji hadn’t warned him anyway. Omi was on Yohji’s heels, smiling blandly at the room. Aya saw his eyes sharpen at both Calico and Cyprus, but he wasn’t sure exactly what thought Omi had had or whether he knew either assassin.
“Bombay, you’re not cleared,” Birman said.
“For fieldwork,” Omi broke in smoothly. “I do have some involvement with Persia and the deployment of Weiß as a unit.”
A moment of tension followed, with Birman’s expression fading into cool inscrutability. “Bombay determines tactics for Weiß,” she said finally. “I see.”
“Weiß has certain strengths,” Omi said. “Ways in which the team can be best used.”
“Of course,” Birman replied, and Aya blinked. He’d missed something; the strain in the room had ratcheted higher, and he had no idea why. Birman turned slightly away from Omi. “Weiß,” she said, and started to outline the next assignment.
“You’re not sure who the target is,” Omi said, when she’d finished explaining.
Birman showed teeth. “The initial assignment is observation,” she said, and Aya could hear the subtle edge of condescension.
“Of course it is,” Omi murmured. “You suspect Hayashibara, but have no proof of wrongdoing.”
Birman’s eyes widened, and Aya frowned. The name Omi had given hadn’t been mentioned in the briefing. “I see you have come to the same conclusions as Persia,” she said.
“I didn’t say that.” Omi glanced around the room. “But he’s not an innocent man, either.”
“Well.” Birman coughed once, delicately. “Weiß, you have your assignments.”
Aya slid his gaze over to Omi, who nodded. “I have tests today,” he said, with a sharp look at Birman. “But I’ll watch the shop tomorrow. Come home safely.”
Aya chose to man the cafe the day of the mission despite Omi’s attempt to tell him to prepare for the mission; there wasn’t much to prepare, Aya reasoned, although Omi didn’t seem impressed. Aya retreated behind the counter, struck by the inexplicable urge to cry in frustration. He swallowed it down, wiping the counter clean and attacking the built-up edges of grime in hard to reach places around the cafe’s machinery. The pressure in his eyes remained, leaking occasionally around the edges while Aya pretended it wasn’t happening.
Men don’t cry, he told himself, but it didn’t help. Weiß had lost a member, and nearly lost a second, and Kritiker kept saddling the two remaining members with operatives who had no idea what they were doing. Aya thought Kritiker was deliberately setting them up for failure, which seemed like a betrayal of the highest order. If Kritiker isn’t worth what I’ve given it, then I’ve been wasting my time. My life. My soul.
Not for the first time, Aya longed to see his sister. Knowing she was alive and happy felt like the only good thing he’d done, since his parents had been killed, knowing that he’d helped take down the group that had kidnapped her to use in an obscene ritual. No matter how much he missed her, though, Aya knew that there was no way he could ever let her see what he’d become. She didn’t deserve to have a murderer for a brother. Better that she think he was dead, or had abandoned her, than she know the truth.
You abandon everyone, he thought, misery fading into dull heaviness in his chest. You let everyone down.
“Penny for your thoughts,” came a cheerful voice, and Aya didn’t have it in him to be startled, despite not having registered the girl’s approach at all.
“Cyprus,” he said, acknowledging his temporary teammate.
“If I’d been trying to be sneaky, you’d be a dead man,” Cyprus said. She tilted her head to the side as she said it, smiling.
“What do you want?” Aya asked.
“Coffee,” Cyprus said. “And to see if last time was a fluke, or if that’s the baseline for Weiß.”
“Weiß is what it is,” Aya told her, and let her work out what he meant by it. He reached for the pot of brewed coffee, but Cyprus shook her head.
“Espresso,” she said. “With steamed milk. Syrup. Give me the works, Abyssinian. Show me what you can do.”
It was a taunt, and she was trying to put him on edge before they ever went on the mission. Aya gritted his teeth and smiled, because Cyprus was still the team leader, even if that was a temporary position, and made her the most complicated drink he knew how. He brushed the edge of his hand against the poison he’d stocked in the cafe, slow-acting and incapacitating, but not fatal if the proper countermeasures were taken, and let himself be tempted for the briefest of moments. He handed her an innocuous drink instead.
“Delicious,” Cyprus said from over the rim of the cup, foam on her lip, with an expression that said she knew very well what he had wanted to do. Aya couldn’t work out whether she was disappointed in him or not as she waved goodbye cheerfully and sauntered down the sidewalk. It was going to be a long night, Aya thought, and the prospect made him feel even worse.
The vantage point from which Abyssinian and Cyprus had chosen to watch for their particular suspect was chilly, but not outright cold. Abyssinian pulled his jacket closer, the sound of rustling clothing loud in his ears. Cyprus paid no attention, fingering the edge of one of her long knives before sliding it back into her boot. She looked up and down the street, projecting an aura of nonchalance that made Abyssinian want to look right past her even though he knew what she was.
“Relax,” she hissed at him.
Abyssinian ignored her; she had no call to tell him how to do his job. He’d been training with Kritiker for years and knew what he was doing.
“You’re conspicuous,” she added, and Abyssinian glared at the back of her head. He wasn’t supposed to be overlooked, or blend into the shadows. He was a hunter of the shadows, the monster in the dark.
“No one is moving,” came Balinese over the comms. “It’s been three, four hours. You sure your information is good, Cyprus?”
“Kritiker hasn’t made a mistake here,” Cyprus said pointedly. “Stay on task.”
“The gamma location,” Balinese said, and then broke off. “Hang on.”
There was a rustling noise from the comm, and then the sound of slow footsteps. Abyssinian frowned. The way the comms were positioned, Balinese’s feet hitting the ground shouldn’t have been audible. Voices, muffled and indistinct, came over the line, and Abyssinian gritted his teeth. Balinese had taken the comm out of his ear and stuffed it somewhere else.
“I’m going to back him up,” he said quietly to Cyprus.
“You’ll stay right where you are unless you get a signal,” Cyprus said. She had a hand on her hip, close to but not touching the third knife Abyssinian knew she had hidden. It was an overt threat.
“Weiß looks out for its own,” Abyssinian said, and strolled out onto the sidewalk. It wasn’t far to the second vantage point, where Balinese and Calico were supposed to be waiting, and Abyssinian didn’t like that Calico had said nothing.
Cyprus fell in beside him, one arm pressed against his side in a casual gesture, head leaning briefly against his shoulder. “If this goes south, I hope you don’t end up permanently injured,” she said softly.
Aya’s mouth twisted downward before he could stop it. “You wouldn’t,” he said.
Cyprus giggled, moving just a little closer, and Aya knew she hadn’t been making idle threats. He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept walking. “Calico,” he said, but she didn’t answer either. The muffled voices from Balinese’s comm continued, and Abyssinian rounded the penultimate corner.
The location the target was supposed to have chosen was out of the way, near the harbor and deserted so late in the evening, lined with back alleys and narrow roads. Abyssinian strode down one of those roads as though he belonged there, making no apparent attempt to stay hidden until the ground in front of him started to shake. Shouting from in front of them jarred dissonantly with the same voices coming from the comm in his ear. Abyssinian cursed and darted for the shadows.
“Look what we have here,” he heard, and it was a voice he’d heard in his memories and nightmares for years, a voice he’d thought he wouldn’t hear again.
“Crawford,” Abyssinian said. Schwarz was right in front of them, had engaged Balinese and possibly Calico, and there was no way Balinese could take them on alone. Abyssinian started forward, and Cyprus yanked him back by his jacket.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she hissed.
“Backing up my teammate,” he said, twisting out of her grip.
“Our standing instructions for Schwarz are do not engage,” Cyprus said. “I know you’re aware.”
“That’s our team,” Abyssinian said, and dodged around the corner before she could catch him again. Whatever standing orders Kritiker had for Schwarz, since its program to develop its own gifted operatives hadn’t yet produced usable results, Abyssinian wouldn’t leave his teammates to die. Not again.
Balinese was standing opposite Crawford, wires splayed out and glistening in the overhead glow of streetlights. Half of them had caught the lamp-posts, and the rest were wrapped around Crawford’s left hand. “Lost little kitten,” Crawford was saying, and the lights reflected across his glasses as he tilted his head. Abyssinian growled, low in his throat, and ran forward to cut Balinese free.
“We’ll have none of that,” said a voice in his head, and Abyssinian felt himself freeze in place, katana held out to the side. He couldn’t see so much as a strand of orange hair, but he knew who was responsible.
“Schuldig,” he growled. The precog and the telepath, two members of Schwarz present, and if the ground had shaken, that made for three. Abyssinian didn’t remember Schuldig having the capacity to control the actions of another unless he was within line of sight, but he was still held fast. “Let go of me, you coward.”
“I’m not the one holding onto you, kitten,” Schuldig said, and Abyssinian could feel the warmth of amusement spreading across his mind like poison. He wanted to laugh, but knowing that it wasn’t his emotion made him sick to his stomach.
“Nagi, then,” he said, and he could turn his head far enough to see the slender boy grown nearly into an adult.
Nagi stood atop one of the cargo containers, straightening as Aya’s gaze landed on him. He jumped to the ground, almost floating downwards and landing with the barest hint of sound. He had gained height and grace in the two years since Weiß had faced off against Schwarz, and Abyssinian suddenly thought their last confrontation hadn’t been far from where they were standing now. Tokyo Bay hadn’t changed, in the intervening time.
“Get out of my head, Schuldig,” Abyssinian said, as images of that fight started pouring into his mind. The feeling of salt water soaking his skin was nearly overwhelming.
A short knife sailed through the air, coming close enough to Nagi’s face to nick his ear, and the pressure around Abyssinian abruptly eased. The sense of liquid sticking to his clothes receded, the salt fading from his nostrils, and Abyssinian chose his target with very little thought. Nagi ducked out of the way of Abyssinian’s descending katana and Abyssinian felt pressure start to sink into him again. He dodged to the side, coming up with a handful of gravel.
Throwing sand in Nagi’s eyes wasn’t an honorable tactic, but it was effective; Nagi cursed and Abyssinian slammed into him. Nagi’s head hit the ground with a dull thud and he went limp. His eyes were still open, but they didn’t track Abyssinian as he climbed off his opponent and glanced around. Balinese had recovered half his wires from Crawford and was dodging around Crawford’s despicable attempts to use a gun.
Calico struggled with Schuldig, not far from where Balinese was facing Crawford. The telepath was laughing, head thrown back, and Cyprus charged in from the side. She scored a line across Schuldig’s torso – no blood drawn that Abyssinian could see, but his face shifted from mirth to annoyance. Cyprus dropped her blade and fell to her knees, hands clutching her ears, but Calico started moving forward and Schuldig didn’t seem to notice.
No one else was visible on the field, and Abyssinian wondered briefly where Farfarello was; surely if the madman had been present, he would have made himself known, Abyssinian thought. Farfarello had never been particularly skilled at stealth, nor had he been prone to holding back. Satisfied that the rest of his teammates – temporary and otherwise – had matters well enough in hand, Abyssinian returned his attention to the prone opponent at his feet. You won’t be bothering us again, he thought viciously, and raised the katana above his head for the fatal blow.
The familiar timbre of the voice froze Abyssinian in place more effectively than the word itself, strangled though it was into near unrecognizability. He started to turn, lowering his katana almost reflexively, as Ken barreled out of the shadows and tackled him to the ground.
Chapter 13: Detour
Planes, as a general rule, were not machines Nagi appreciated. All the tiny moving parts of an engine, spinning together to lift the craft into the sky, and if something went wrong, he would have to exhaust himself to catch it. He gripped the arm rest, feeling the cloth give under his hands, until the hard plastic underneath creaked in protest.
“Give it a rest.” The voice coming from his left was audible, rather than telepathic, and Nagi shot his companion an irritated glare. “What?” Schuldig smirked at him. “I can’t talk like everyone else?”
“Not when you’re actively trying to embarrass me in public.” Nagi let go, making his fingers uncurl as the plane leveled out.
“But you do it so well,” Schuldig said, and Nagi tried to remind himself that Schuldig was bored. That being trapped in a tin can thirty thousand feet in the air with hundreds of other minds and no change of scenery was unpleasant. That Schuldig was needling him because creating chaos in such an unstable environment would lead to disaster, and Schuldig had no desire to die. Schuldig reached out to finger Nagi’s hair, smirking even more widely.
“Just. Shut up.” There was still only so much of his teammate’s needling Nagi was willing to take. “I might have let you bleach my hair, but that doesn’t mean you can touch it,” he reminded Schuldig.
“It looks so good on you,” Schuldig said, as if he hadn’t stopped the bleaching process at the most brassy shade of orange he could find. Nagi’s hair was brighter than Schuldig’s, which Nagi hadn’t thought possible. “Losing that bet was the best thing that ever happened to you.”
“You just didn’t want to be the only redhead around,” Nagi retorted, and Schuldig cackled. Nagi vowed to dye his hair dark again as soon as humanly possible, before Schuldig imploded with sadistic glee. Not that Nagi generally minded Schuldig’s tendency toward sadism, but he didn’t appreciate it being aimed in his direction.
“The captain’s about to make the landing announcement,” Schuldig said, with a bright smile, as if he hadn’t spent the entire flight prodding at every insecurity Nagi had. “We’ll be safe on the ground before you know it.”
“Fantastic.” Nagi closed his eyes, but the vivid imagery of what might happen if the plane crashed playing out against his eyelids drove him to open them again. “Schuldig, seriously, cut it out.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Schuldig said, the very picture of wounded innocence, and Nagi might have believed him if he hadn’t spent years with the telepath. Then again, it was possible that Schuldig was telling the truth, Nagi thought; he didn’t spend literally every waking minute trying to drive those around him mad. “Just most of them,” Schuldig said, and grinned when Nagi rolled his eyes.
“Don’t you want to try to figure out why Crawford is dragging us to the States instead?” he asked.
Schuldig made a face. “Too far away for me to reach him yet.”
“Use your powers of deduction,” Nagi muttered.
“You’re so cute.” Schuldig wriggled around until he could pat Nagi on the head, as though Nagi were still the adolescent he’d been when they’d met and not nearly a legal adult in every country on the planet. “Cuter when you were twelve, though,” Schuldig added.
“Stay out of my head.” Glaring didn’t work, snapping didn’t work, and Nagi was close to the end of his rope.
“Really?” Schuldig said. “You’d knock the plane out of the sky entirely? That’s mean, Nagi.”
“Try me,” Nagi said, but the sense of Schuldig faded a little. Nagi would take it. More than the act of sitting on a plane, he was bothered by Crawford’s sudden change in the group’s itinerary. The plan had been to go south, through Europe, and then maybe up into western Asia. The remnants of Esstset’s horde of psychics tended to make things uncomfortable for Schwarz, and Crawford had decided that hunting a potential trail would make their lives easier.
Keeping Schuldig entertained might have been one of the driving forces of that particular decision, Nagi reflected, even if Crawford had left them alone for a week to conduct some sort of solitary business. Instead of waiting for Crawford to return and start the hunt, however, they’d been summoned. None of Schwarz cared to argue overly loudly with instructions from Crawford, and so Nagi had been playing the punching bag for his bored teammate in an increasingly claustrophobic seat, hurtling above the ground toward probable death.
“Planes are safer than bathtubs,” Schuldig said, irrepressible.
“What could possibly be in the United States that means we have to go there?” Nagi asked, ignoring Schuldig’s verbal statement entirely.
“Who cares?” Schuldig shrugged. “We’ll get to those bastards eventually, one way or another. If we don’t find them, they’ll find us, and then they die.”
“That’s not -” Nagi sighed. “What I meant,” he finished, but Schuldig had an expression on his face that meant he was listening to something inside his head. Nagi glanced out the window to see the ground much closer than he’d thought, and the wheels touched the ground with a jolt.
“Feel better now?” Schuldig asked.
Nagi nodded. “Thanks.” The trouble was that Schuldig probably thought he’d been doing Nagi a favor, by distracting him – with or without the use of his telepathy; Nagi would never know how much Schuldig had been in his head – and kind intentions were few and far between, when it came to any of the members of Schwarz. Nagi would take what he could get.
“Brad wants us to meet him at some hotel,” Schuldig said. “He’s hiding something.”
“Great.” Nagi stayed patiently in his seat as the plane taxied toward the gate, and when it came to a halt. Somewhat to his surprise, so did the rest of the passengers. Nagi frowned, and then glanced at Schuldig.
“What, you think I’m going to wait for all of them?” Schuldig rolled his eyes. “Please.”
The interior of the plane was an oddly silent tableau, as the flight attendants went through the post-arrival checklist – Yes, Nagi, so you can feel that the crew is safely performing its duties, Schuldig whispered, and Nagi wasn’t sure if this was a continuation of Schuldig’s attempt at kindness or just outright mockery – and opened the door. Nagi pulled his bag out of the overhead compartment, and grabbed Schuldig’s as well, for good measure, and led the way down the quiet aisle. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end until he stepped off the plane and made it into the terminal, and the noise behind them resumed.
“Thanks, kid.” Schuldig grabbed for his luggage, and Nagi let him have it. “Ah, taxi. This way.”
The driver of whatever taxi Schuldig chose wasn’t going to have a pleasant time of it, but Nagi made a wager with himself as to whether Schuldig might actually pay the fare this time. He lost, when Schuldig paid and tipped the driver on arriving at the hotel, which was so nondescript as to be nearly invisible. It was the type of nondescript that screamed discreet rather than radiating neglect, and a far cry from Crawford’s usual choice. Nagi raised an eyebrow and followed Schuldig into the building.
“Excuse me, sir.” The attendant at the desk tried to catch Schuldig’s attention, and then flinched hard and went white. Nagi waved an apology, and kept moving.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Schuldig said, stopping abruptly in the middle of the corridor.
“What?” Nagi had nearly run into him, and he couldn’t see any reason for Schuldig’s behavior, which led to the inevitable conclusion that Schuldig had figured out why Crawford wanted the two of them in Los Angeles instead of waiting for him in Rome.
“I question our fearless leader’s judgment,” Schuldig said, rounding on him. “And you’re not going to like it either, so remember that, when I start bitching.”
“Start?” Nagi muttered.
“Don’t get cute with me.” Any sense of indulgence was gone, and Schuldig stalked down the corridor. He flung open a door, dramatically, and stood in the doorframe. “Well?” he said.
The room wasn’t visible, around Schuldig’s flamboyant pose, but Nagi heard Crawford’s half-amused snort. “Come inside and close the door,” he said. “You did bring Nagi?”
“I’m here,” Nagi said, and he could almost feel Schuldig roll his eyes. “Does someone want to tell me what’s going on?”
“That,” Schuldig said, no less dramatic, finally moving into the room and letting Nagi through the door.
At first glance, the room was unremarkable, except for Crawford posed carefully on a chair with a cup of coffee. Nagi had the errant thought that it was early morning, in Los Angeles, and of course Crawford would have coffee, and then the other occupant of the room caught the entirety of his attention.
“You didn’t,” he said.
Sprawled out on the room’s only bed, either unconscious or deeply asleep, was the form of one of the members of Weiß – the man Nagi wanted desperately to kill, for murdering the person who’d taken Nagi in as a child. His face was bruised, and his clothing was torn and filthy. Dark shadows were visible under his eyes, even from across the room, and he wasn’t suffering enough.
“Hidaka Ken,” Nagi hissed.
“He’s not here for you to kill,” Schuldig said, and then frowned. “Really, Brad?”
“I had a vision,” Crawford said, taking a sip of his coffee.
“A vision,” Nagi repeated flatly. He turned to face Crawford, not wanting to look at a face he hated. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Schuldig approach the Weiß assassin, poking him roughly.
“He’s useful,” Crawford said. “We’re down a member.”
“You can’t just!” Nagi clenched his jaw and closed his eyes, counting to three. “Crawford,” he said, leaving off the honorific even knowing that it would only annoy Crawford but unable to stop himself from making the tiny barb. “Hidaka Ken isn’t – he can’t just be a replacement for Farfarello.”
“I didn’t say he was,” Crawford said mildly.
“You – implied it,” Nagi said, pausing in the middle to take a deep breath and modulate his tone.
“I think he’s broken,” Schuldig said from behind Nagi. “He’s not moving.”
“I collected him under some rather interesting circumstances,” Crawford said, and Nagi heard Schuldig turn around.
Crawford’s definition of interesting didn’t always match Schuldig’s, Nagi had found, but in this case the two were fairly well aligned. Crawford had run into an individual who had been involved in manufacturing a drug that would give its users superpowers – or kill them, or leave them worse off for the wear, with no way to tell what the permanent effects might be – and had taken exception to the product. The man was now dead, but before he’d died, Crawford had learned that Weiß had been responsible for breaking the man’s organization into pieces and irreparably destroying the method of creating the drug.
“Useful little bastards, sometimes,” Schuldig said. Crawford threw him a look. “Go on, go on,” Schuldig said, settling onto the bed like a cat and tangling one hand in Hidaka’s hair.
“That doesn’t explain where you found him,” Nagi said, pointing.
“That was the vision,” Crawford told him, sipping his coffee again. “Weiß failed to rescue their teammate, so I picked him up.”
“You destroyed an entire building,” Schuldig said, sounding jealous. “Without me. Without us. Really, Brad, how could you?”
A choked whimper sounded, and Nagi looked down to see Schuldig’s hand closed into a fist. Hidaka’s eyes were open, and he was trying to pull himself out of Schuldig’s grasp.
“Timing,” Crawford said. “And I was in the area for another reason.”
“Your mysterious trip,” Schuldig said. “Fine, don’t tell me what it was. Explain what you think you’re going to do with this.” He raised his fist slightly, and Hidaka’s attempt to get free intensified. Nagi might have laughed, at how ineffective it was, but it just made him sick to his stomach instead.
“I told you,” Crawford said. “Useful.”
“Look at him!” Schuldig let go and Hidaka scrambled away, uncoordinated, clearly not focused on his surroundings. He made it to the edge of the bed, barely out of arm’s reach, and curled into a terrified ball. “How is this useful?”
“He will be.” Crawford smirked. “You may need to take a walk inside his head. See what’s going on in there, see if you can nudge a few things here and there.”
It was a mark of how much Schuldig respected Crawford that he simply sighed and reached for Hidaka again. “Talk to me, Nagi,” he murmured, after a moment. “Say anything.”
The audible anchor wasn’t a favor Schuldig asked for often, but Nagi’s tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth. For Crawford to ask him to work with the man who’d murdered his foster mother was almost more than Nagi wanted to bear; Schwarz had started to crack, when Farfarello had left, and those cracks were only growing wider. Schuldig doesn’t deserve to suffer for that, his conscience prompted, and Nagi started to talk.
The words weren’t important, only that Nagi felt what he said, and some of the tension drained out of Schuldig’s shoulders. Nagi’s voice was hoarse by the time Schuldig pulled away from Hidaka, sweat dampening his hairline. Crawford handed Nagi a glass of water and he drained it gratefully, seeing Crawford provide the same to Schuldig. He hadn’t realized his throat was quite so dry, or that the sunlight on the floor had moved so far.
“And?” Crawford said.
“He’ll be useful,” Schuldig said, and stabbed a finger towards Crawford’s pleased smirk. “And it wasn’t easy to get him there, either. You should appreciate me.”
“Oh, I do.” The smirk widened. “Nagi. Watch him.”
“But -” It was useless to protest. The door closed behind Nagi’s teammates, leaving him alone with Hidaka. Bile rose in Nagi’s throat and he swallowed it back down. He looked over at the bed, where Hidaka was sitting upright, hands folded in his lap. His expression was blank, and he was looking at Nagi expectantly. “What?” Nagi snapped.
“What do you want me to do?” Hidaka’s voice was low, lower than Nagi remembered it, and nearly inaudible.
“I -” The word caught in Nagi’s throat. “Go take a shower,” he said, seizing on the first thing that would get Hidaka out of his sight without losing him entirely.
Hidaka nodded and crawled off the bed. He wavered slightly, on the way into the bathroom, and left the door open. Nagi could hear water running, and he could see the neatly folded pile of clothes Hidaka left on the counter. Asshole, he thought, but he didn’t know which of his teammates – new or old – he meant by it. All of them, he thought, and started digging through luggage for clothes. Hidaka was broader in the shoulders than Schuldig, but shorter than either of the two senior members of Schwarz, and Nagi wasn’t going to give up any of his own belongings.
“Taller than I am, anyway,” he muttered. Nagi had barely reached 170cm, but as far as he could tell, he’d reached the end of his growth spurt. Hidaka could have one of Crawford’s shirts, and a pair of Schuldig’s pants, and he’d have to figure out his own shoes. Nagi left the clothes on the counter, not looking into the shower, and dumped the filthy rags Hidaka had been wearing into the nearest trash can. “Put those on, when you come out,” he said.
“Okay.” Hidaka shut off the water, and Nagi retreated out of the bathroom.
Maybe if he just dies, they’ll accept it, he thought, but he knew he wouldn’t. Crawford knew it too, Nagi thought a little resentfully, or he wouldn’t have left Nagi alone with his new asset. The creak of the door opening pulled at his attention again, and Nagi looked up. Hidaka still looked terrible, pale despite the heat of the water and still not entirely steady on his feet.
“Do you remember Sister Amamiya?” Nagi said. He hadn’t meant to ask, hadn’t planned the words.
Hidaka tilted his head to the side. “Sister Amamiya?” he repeated.
“One of your targets,” Nagi spat. “One of Weiß’ targets.” He remembered, even if Hidaka didn’t; Nagi had been taken into an orphanage, after his parents had died in some sort of accident, and he’d grown up under the kind tutelage of the sister who ran it. Hidaka had been a semi-regular visitor, bringing treats for Nagi and the other children and kicking a scruffy soccer ball around an equally scruffy back yard with them. Nagi had loved him, then, before he’d appeared as a demon hiding behind the name of Weiß and murdered the only person who’d made Nagi feel safe.
Nagi had learned, later, that Sister Amamiya had had a minor psychic talent, and that she’d been using the children she took care of to clean the filth out of the world. She’d been trying to make the world a safer place, by taking the sinners out of it, and it was no different than what Weiß arrogantly claimed their purpose to be, but Hidaka had killed her anyway.
“She was doing the same thing Weiß did,” Nagi said. “What makes you any better?”
“Weiß,” Hidaka repeated, and grimaced as though in pain. “I don’t -”
“You killed her,” Nagi pressed, stalking forward. “You betrayed me, and you killed her.”
“What do you want me to do?” Hidaka backed away, touching his forehead.
“Have you forgotten?” Nagi hissed.
Hidaka’s knees folded and he sank down, shaking his head. “I don’t – I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what you want.”
For a moment that should have been exactly what Nagi wanted, it felt strangely empty. Hidaka was on the ground at his feet, writhing in agony and almost begging for mercy, and Nagi didn’t care. The anger burning in his chest felt insubstantial, and beneath it was a vast gray sea of nothing. “Get up,” he said, and Hidaka stood, expression easing.
“Do you know who you are?” Nagi asked.
“Siberian,” Hidaka said. “My name is Siberian.”
“And?” Nagi prompted.
“I’m a tool for Schwarz.” The sentence sounded odd, as though it bore the familiarity of endless repetition, but it didn’t flow easily off Hidaka’s tongue.
“What else?” Nagi said, curious now.
“There is nothing else,” Hidaka – no, Siberian – said.
“Where were you before you came here?” Nagi backed up a little, just enough to be able to look Siberian in the eyes.
“I don’t -” Siberian said, and shivered.
“Never mind.” Nagi folded his arms. “You don’t remember Sister Amamiya.”
Siberian just looked confused, and Nagi sighed. “Schuldig really did a number on you, then,” he said. He’d known that, after Schuldig had asked for the audible anchor, and after seeing what it had taken out of the other man to do whatever it was he’d done inside Hidaka’s head, but seeing the results was another experience entirely.
“What do you want?” Siberian repeated.
“Schwarz,” Nagi asked, “or specifically me?”
“Naoe Nagi,” Siberian said. “I should obey Naoe Nagi.”
An odd sensation tugged at the back of Nagi’s throat, and when he opened his mouth, he discovered that it was laughter. Schuldig had been in a very generous mood, he thought, if he’d delivered Hidaka Ken all but wrapped in a bow for Nagi to do with as he pleased. This is better than seeing you dead, he nearly said out loud. “Go lie down and sleep,” he said, finally. “A tool is no good if it breaks.”
Siberian made as if to lie down on the floor and Nagi sighed.
“On the bed,” he said. “Sleep on the bed.”
It only took a few seconds for Siberian’s breathing to even out again, the last of the evening sunlight reflecting off his skin or no, and Nagi saw the boy he’d idolized once in Siberian’s sleeping face. The bitterness surged upward again. Crawford saved me, the second time, Nagi thought, unbidden. Sister Amamiya had taken him in the first time the world had been torn away from Nagi, and Crawford had taken him in the second time. Nagi hadn’t been able to find someone to blame, when his parents had died, but he’d known who was responsible for the second time his world had been shattered.
“It should have been me, that tried to kill you,” Nagi murmured, swept up in the memory of the last time Schwarz had seen Weiß. They’d all been swept into Tokyo Bay, caught in a collapsing building, and Nagi had been the only reason Schwarz had gotten out alive. He’d been unconscious for two days, after, but his team had been safe. He hadn’t spared a thought for Weiß, except to hope that they were dead, but he wasn’t surprised to hear that they weren’t.
Like a bad penny, Nagi thought, the English phrase floating into his conscious mind. Weiß kept turning up, no matter how many times Schwarz beat them into the ground. I should have just crushed them all like tin cans, the first time we met. If he’d had even a hint of Crawford’s abilities, Nagi would have done it, he thought viciously, but the momentum behind the regret burned itself out almost immediately. Nagi suddenly wanted nothing less than to be awake. The bed was wide enough that he could pretend no one else was on it, and Nagi gratefully let his mind shut itself off.
If I’m lucky, this is all a dream.
“You’re too cute for words.” The voice in his ear roused him before he was ready, the dull sensation of a headache starting behind his temples intertwined with the diffuse brightness stabbing into his eyes like thousands of needles. “I don’t know why you have the headache, I did all the work,” the voice continued.
“Shut up, Schuldig,” Nagi said. He was warm, for once, and the weight of the heat across his chest was comforting. “Shut up and go away.”
“I would,” Schuldig said. “But we’ve got another plane to catch.”
“Why?” Nagi said, burying his face in the pillow. “Why can’t we just stay in one place.”
“Because Crawford has some work lined up in Japan,” Schuldig said, and Nagi groaned.
“That doesn’t make it better,” he said. “What if I don’t want to go back to Japan.”
“Sure you do. You and the kitten both.” Schuldig was smirking, Nagi found when he opened his eyes enough to look at his teammate.
“I don’t care what he wants, either, and what did you do to him, anyway.”
“Not this,” Schuldig said, gesturing, and Nagi’s perceptions realigned themselves into the sensation of someone pressed against his back with an arm around him, holding him just tightly enough. Nagi yelped and scrambled out of the bed, pulling himself out of Siberian’s grasp.
“You – you,” he said. “Why would you do that?”
“I just told you I didn’t,” Schuldig said, reaching past Nagi to pet Siberian like the kitten he absolutely was not. Siberian didn’t stir, looking ridiculously small and vulnerable in Crawford’s too-big shirt. Nagi pushed away the half-formed protective impulse before it could manifest and focused on Schuldig instead. “He did that all on his own,” Schuldig continued. “Or you told him to. I just put most of him back in the box he made.”
“What box?” The headache was starting to fade, now that he felt a little more awake, and Nagi frowned up at his teammate. “What are you talking about?”
“He put himself in a mental box.” Schuldig gestured, but it was nonsense and Nagi ignored it. “Clever, really, if he was being interrogated. If he’d done it right. Which he didn’t.” Schuldig grinned. “Now it’s been done right. Everything that he was, locked away tight where he can’t get at it, but all of his training intact.”
“That would make him useful,” Nagi said slowly. “Why not erase it all entirely?”
Schuldig shrugged, corner of his mouth turning down, and Nagi thought that Schuldig had perhaps tried that route and failed. Schuldig didn’t take well to failure. “What he is is tied to what he was. Erasing one erases the other,” he said finally. “This is better, though. He’s a hostage for Weiß, if we ever want to annoy them.”
“Ha,” Nagi said. “This is what Crawford wanted you to do?”
“He just thought Hidaka would be useful,” Schuldig said. “I’m the one that made it possible.”
“Right.” Nagi scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’m going to take a shower before we leave. And he’s wearing your pants. Mine wouldn’t fit him.”
“Touche,” Schuldig said after a moment, and let Nagi escape.
Arriving back in Japan felt less like coming home than Nagi would have guessed; the air smelled indefinably different, the text on the signs and buildings both familiar and oddly strange. For the first time in months, Nagi didn’t have to work at mentally translating the script surrounding him, but it left him with a different type of mental load. Siberian dogging his heels in stark contrast to the cat he was named after added to the sense of unreality, but at least the man looked more or less alert. Which he should have, Nagi thought a little resentfully, after sleeping through the ride to the airport, most of the time they’d spent waiting at the gate, and the entirety of the flight itself. Nagi himself was exhausted.
“We’re staying in Tokyo?” Nagi heard Schuldig ask with a note of surprise, and Nagi hadn’t heard Crawford say anything.
“Is that a problem?” Crawford asked mildly, and Schuldig shrugged. The four of them stood out on the crowded train, heading into the heart of the city. Nagi had assumed they would catch a train to their intended destination out of Ueno, or Tokyo Station, but Crawford apparently had other ideas.
“I wouldn’t call it a problem, but the kitten’s teammates aren’t that far away,” he said. “Old friends. Past business acquaintances.”
“Which is why you and I will be providing security, and our little prodigy here will drop a building when we need it to happen,” Crawford said.
“I hate that name,” Nagi muttered. None of the codenames they’d been given while they’d been employed by Esstset implied that they were anything but objects to be used. “You know I hate that name.”
“You want him to do what?” Schuldig asked, and Nagi blinked. It occurred to him suddenly that if he ever wanted to leave Schwarz, he could probably have a successful career in either construction or film-making as a demolitions specialist. Nagi rubbed at his eyes and dismissed the fatigue-sparked mental ramblings.
“I’ve collapsed buildings before,” he reminded Schuldig. “I’m very good at what I do, remember?”
“Not that,” Schuldig said. “Brad wants you to go to boot camp.”
“It’s not boot camp,” Crawford said, sounding pained.
“I’ve had training,” Nagi reminded Crawford. “We all have.”
“Not quite this type of training,” Crawford said.
“I can take care of myself in a fight,” Nagi said, hearing his voice raise and not caring that it was getting them sidelong looks – but not yet outright stares – from other passengers. Siberian shifted next to him, body language subtly altering to a protective stance. Nagi glared at him, to no discernible effect, and switched languages to German. “I don’t need hand to hand training, if that’s what you’re thinking of. I have other skills.”
“Humor me,” Crawford said, in the tone of voice that meant he’d seen something.
“This is ridiculous,” Nagi said. “You’re being ridiculous. I have – no one can even get near me.”
“You could always let Siberian train you,” Crawford said. He sounded almost bored, as though he weren’t quite paying attention to what he was saying, as though it was a foregone conclusion that Nagi would be so irritated by the thought that he’d just go along with whatever Crawford had had planned in the first place, and Nagi wasn’t going to do it.
“Fine,” he said.
“What?” Crawford didn’t quite startle, didn’t quite jump in his seat, but Nagi had the distinct pleasure of seeing him twitch in suppressed movement and knowing that he’d genuinely surprised his team leader. “Of course,” he said, and glanced over at Siberian. “He still remembers?” he asked.
“I’ll test him, if you like,” Schuldig said, and Crawford nodded as though the matter were completely settled.
Nagi sank back in his seat, seething, staring out the darkened window at the flashes of city lights and wondering how he’d managed to be outmaneuvered even when he’d reacted in a way that Crawford clearly hadn’t expected. The building they eventually reached, after another train and a taxi, didn’t quite mollify him. It was a small house, well built with a tasteful exterior, and familiar inside in ways Nagi hadn’t realized he’d missed. He toed off his shoes at the entrance and stepped up on to the wooden floor, something in him relaxing at the simple gesture.
“Not this shit again,” Schuldig muttered behind him, and Nagi suppressed a grin. “I heard that,” Schuldig said.
“Kitten doesn’t need reminders,” Nagi taunted, walking backwards toward the door. Siberian followed him easily, shoes neatly lined up on the tile entryway, and slipped around him to vanish into the dark house. He made no effort to turn on a light, and Nagi couldn’t help but look for a light switch.
“How long can you keep him suppressed?” Crawford asked. Despite not growing up with the habit, he stepped out of his shoes with the ease of long practice.
Schuldig shrugged. “It’s not like it usually is,” he said. “There was something else that kickstarted his little self-boxing process. It almost feels like he’s like me, but whatever it was is gone now.”
Crawford looked at Schuldig patiently.
“Forever,” Schuldig said, throwing his arms out to the side. “He’s not fighting it. There isn’t enough of him outside that box to fight it and he’s the one holding the box closed.”
“What do you mean, like you?” Nagi asked. He’d made it through the door, but he’d stopped to listen to Crawford’s question.
“He feels psychic,” Schuldig said. “Felt. Not any more.”
“Him,” Nagi said flatly. Part of why Schwarz had never taken Weiß completely seriously was their absolute dearth of anything except purely human ability. Granted, Weiß had more or less made itself into the peak of human potential, but none of them had anything extraordinary.
“I told you,” Schuldig said. “It’s not there now.”
“Siberian,” Crawford said, and Siberian reappeared on Nagi’s other side like a ghost. Crawford’s white shirt, wrinkled now beyond repair, gleamed in the dark. Nagi flinched back, not having heard him coming, and stumbled against the light switch. A cold bluish glow bathed the room, illuminating the kitchen to Nagi’s right and reflecting off a television screen at the other end of the elongated space on Nagi’s left. The room was fully furnished, a low couch in front of the television and a dining table with chairs tucked against the counter delineating the edge of the kitchen.
Schuldig padded through the door, not quite shoving Crawford to the side, and prowled around the room, pausing to wrinkle his nose at the stove and pushing open the door on the other side to reveal an open, shadowed corner. “Dibs on the shower,” he said.
“You asked a question,” Crawford said, pushing his glasses up toward his eyes. The light shone off of the lenses, briefly concealing his eyes, and Nagi felt himself come to attention automatically. Schuldig abandoned his exploration and flung himself into one of the dining room chairs.
“Well, then,” he said, gesturing expansively.
Crawford pulled a small case out of his jacket pocket, dark matte plastic, color indeterminate even in the harsh lighting. Nagi leaned forward, curious, and Crawford carefully opened it. A set of tweezers was nestled along one side of the case, the rest of which appeared to be a solid block. Crawford depressed the edge of the block and it sprang upward to reveal a stack of bright red sheets, a little thicker than paper, rough and waxy with slightly jagged edges. Crawford pulled the tweezers out of their case and used them to pull a single sheet out. It slipped free easily despite its appearance.
“Siberian,” Crawford said again. “Open your mouth.”
Siberian obeyed readily, and Crawford placed the slip of not-paper on his tongue. It started to dissolve almost before Nagi’s eyes, and Crawford put the case away in the reverse order of how he’d opened it. Siberian shivered, closing his eyes and going down to one knee, and Nagi almost started forward.
“Try him now,” Crawford said.
Schuldig, who had gone from sprawled to sitting upright as soon as the sheet had touched Siberian, walked the few steps across the floor to touch his shoulder tentatively. He stiffened, eyes widening, and then threw an angry look at Crawford. “That wasn’t nice,” he said. “What is that?”
“It has a number of names,” Crawford said, and then held up a mollifying hand. “It’s one of the versions of the drug that might or might not give the user...” He paused. “Abilities,” he finished. “An accidental side effect. Difficult to find, now, that its only manufacturer has gone out of business.”
“Weiß,” Nagi said, remembering how Crawford had found Siberian to begin with. “Is that all that there is?”
Crawford threw him an irritated look and Nagi put up his hands in surrender; he should have known better than to ask a question for which Crawford could have no answer, and it didn’t matter if there was more of the drug in general circulation. Weiß had made sure that more couldn’t be created.
“How did you know it would give Siberian – that it wouldn’t kill him?” Nagi asked, but the answer was obvious, if he thought about it. “He’d already had it, either from the group that made it or whatever suits he got rescued from.”
“And we have a winner,” Schuldig said, mouth twisted. “This is like a feedback loop, Brad. He’s projecting. He feels terrible. And,” Schuldig stabbed a finger towards Crawford, “he can’t feel it, because of the box. Or he doesn’t care. But I care, because I don’t want to feel stabbing pain every time he takes a breath, how the fuck is he supposed to be useful.”
Crawford tossed a small object toward Schuldig. Nagi couldn’t see it clearly until Schuldig caught it, but he could hear the rattle. “Give him the pills on time,” he said mildly.
“Your job,” Schuldig said, pushing what Nagi could now see was a small orange bottle in Nagi’s general direction.
“Why is it my job,” Nagi muttered. The bottle was full of antibiotics, which told Nagi precisely nothing about why Crawford had had them in his pocket or why a number was on the label instead of a name. “We could just leave him in a back alley somewhere and be done with it.”
“And waste all the work we’ve put in so far?” Schuldig smiled brightly.
“You’re falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy,” Nagi told him. “Cut our losses and keep what we have.”
“Siberian is what we have,” Crawford said. “The kitten stays, until I tell you he doesn’t.”
Nagi kept the refrain of tin pot dictator tightly leashed inside his head, but he had the sinking suspicion Schuldig heard it anyway. Mental walls were hard to build and harder to maintain, even with Nagi’s years of practice. “I need sleep,” he said out loud, scooping his single bag off the floor and heading toward the corner Schuldig had found a few minutes before.
“I told you, dibs on the shower,” Schuldig said, and Nagi altered his course for the stairs. Siberian followed, moving smoothly, and Schuldig winced. “And medicate him. Before he falls over and I have to experience that, too.”
“It’s not going to make him feel any better,” Nagi said, and Schuldig made a face at him. Nagi turned his back, heading up the stairs to find a door into a bedroom with a double bed on his left. He went past, turning right down the hall instead and opening the far door into a small room with sliding doors comprising the majority of two of its four walls. The set opposite the door was partially hidden behind blinds, while the set on Nagi’s left was open to reveal a mirror image of the room in which he stood. Nagi closed it, dropping his bag in the corner and wondering if maybe he could just sleep without a shower.
Movement behind him startled him badly enough to flinch, but it was Siberian, nearly as pale as his shirt and still with shadows like bruises under his eyes despite how much Nagi had seen him sleep. “Goddammit,” Nagi said in English. The orange bottle was still in his hand, and he shook out one of the pills. It turned out to be a poisonously bright bluish green, vivid against his palm. Nagi closed the bottle, stuffing it into his bag before reaching for Siberian’s hand.
“Swallow that,” he said roughly, closing Siberian’s fingers around it. He didn’t want to worry about the other man, didn’t want him around, didn’t want to be reminded of what Hidaka had taken from him three years before. Was it only three years? It felt more like a lifetime, as though Nagi had never done anything but work with Schwarz, but he’d been twelve the first time he’d seen Crawford and fourteen when Hidaka had ruined the place he’d grown up.
Siberian obediently raised his hand to his mouth and swallowed the pill dry, but his eyes glistened as he stared at Nagi.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Nagi said, and the moisture spilled over, tracking its slow way down Siberian’s cheeks. “Don’t,” Nagi said again, and stepped back. Shutting Siberian on the other side of the sliding doors made no difference to the image replaying itself in Nagi’s mind, and despite his exhaustion, he couldn’t sleep.
When Nagi pulled himself out of the gritty remnants of half-remembered nightmares, it was nearly noon and his skin felt sticky with sweat. He padded down the stairs, feeling relief at slipping into the bathroom without seeing anyone else. The scent of old coffee hung in the air, strong enough to overwhelm the cleaner scent of soap around the shower, and Nagi wrinkled his nose. The sight of his own bright hair in the mirror was just as disorienting; he kept forgetting that it wasn’t its natural color, no matter how often it fell in his eyes.
The coffee maker had been left on, Nagi discovered when he emerged, the trace of liquid in the bottom opaque. “This is a fire hazard,” he said to no one in particular. The first floor was empty, no sign aside from the coffee maker that anyone had been there at all, and Nagi rolled his eyes. Crawford had had work lined up, he remembered, and instructions for Nagi, which he couldn’t follow if Crawford weren’t around to give them. “Such a tragedy,” he said out loud, and noticed another sliding door to the left of the stairs.
Curious, Nagi opened it. The room inside was small, tatami mats lining the floor and the traditional alcove tucked under the stairs. Siberian was in the room, kneeling in the center of the floor, hands loosely curled on his lap. He didn’t appear to hear Nagi open the door, looking steadily at the empty alcove with an expression that almost looked peaceful. Nagi was struck with the urge to trail his fingers across the back of Siberian’s neck and over his jaw, to see if his skin was as soft as it looked.
“Ken,” he said, the name coming unbidden.
Siberian turned his head, expectant, and Nagi remembered that he wasn’t supposed to want Siberian.
“What – what are you doing?” he asked.
“Waiting,” Siberian said, an edge of hoarseness bleeding through the word.
The answer left Nagi feeling hollow, not what he had expected although he couldn’t have said what he might have been waiting for Siberian to say. “For?” he asked, more sharply than he’d wanted.
“You,” Siberian said, and rose gracefully to his feet. They were bare, toes pink with the stiffness of limbs unaccustomed to the formal position in which Siberian had been sitting. Despite what had to be the prickling pain in his feet, Siberian crossed the floor with no sign of discomfort, until he reached the threshold and stumbled slightly.
“For fuck’s sake,” Nagi said, reaching out automatically to catch Siberian before the man crashed into him. He wasn’t sure whether or not to be disappointed when Siberian steadied himself without assistance.
“We can start whenever you’re ready,” Siberian said, sure on his feet again but not stepping away from Nagi.
“Start what?” Nagi asked. It was confusing, Siberian standing so close, a distorted mirror of the boy Nagi had loved and the man he had hated, eyes blank and empty. It was nearly a clean slate, but shadows of what Siberian had been marred its surface. Not enough of the man who had been remained for Nagi to get any sense of closure or resolution from his pain, but too much was lurking just below the surface for Nagi to see him as someone entirely different. He ached to touch him anyway.
“Training,” Siberian said, derailing Nagi’s train of thought.
“Of course,” Nagi muttered. “Training.” He wasn’t dressed for training. He didn’t have the appropriate clothes for training. Neither did Siberian, for that matter. That a shopping excursion would let him acquire dye to put his hair back to its proper color was incidental. He carefully avoided the thought that it would also keep him from close proximity with Siberian. “You need shoes,” he said. “I need shoes.”
“Hand to hand combat practice,” Siberian reminded him. Nagi glared. Siberian was wearing the same clothing Nagi had handed to him before they’d left L.A., although his hair was clean and damp along the edges.
“Pants,” Nagi retorted. “You don’t have any.” He had a wallet in his bag, and a credit card. Despite what he’d said to Crawford, a knot lodged itself in his stomach when Nagi thought of letting Hidaka Ken try to teach him how to win in a fist fight. Better to make sure Nagi had the type of clothes he could train in, and that Siberian wouldn’t destroy Schwarz’ public image by wearing too-long pants and a wrinkled white shirt forever.
The orange bottle rattled in the bag and Nagi groaned. “Every eight hours,” he muttered at it, and took another dose out. The memory of Siberian’s face when Nagi had handed him the pill the night before rose up, and Nagi was careful not to touch Siberian’s skin this time. Siberian swallowed the pill without question, no change in his expression, and Nagi wondered if the after-effects of Crawford’s ability-inducing drug still lingered.
If the way Siberian stuck close to Nagi’s shoulder and went rigid with tension the moment they stepped off the train into a crowded station was any indication, the effects hadn’t faded. Nagi looked at him speculatively, remembering that Schuldig had spoken on a few occasions about the mental pressure of being in a crowd, how it was sometimes hard to figure out which of the voices in his head belonged to him. Siberian edged a little closer to Nagi in the crowd, actively avoiding touching anyone else.
“Huh,” Nagi said, and led the way to the nearest department store he could remember.
The shop Nagi had wanted was closed, swallowed up by a larger chain, but it didn’t matter. It still had dye that would remove the evidence of his lost bet, and Nagi threw it in his basket with a sense of victory. He spent very little time choosing loose clothing for himself, easy to move in and practice whatever it was Crawford thought he should be learning, in a variety of nondescript grays and blacks. Choosing clothing for Siberian turned out to be far more entertaining; he didn’t protest, no matter what Nagi chose, and Nagi amused himself for a little while by picking out the most tasteless items he could find.
“Not exactly the public image we want to project, is it.” The current shirt was a neon monstrosity, surprisingly well-suited to Siberian despite its general hideousness, and Nagi remembered the absurd orange sweater Siberian had worn the few times Weiß had come up against Schwarz in the field, and the tacky shirts Hidaka had seemed to favor in the flower shop. The pile of ugly items seemed much less entertaining after that, and Nagi assembled a pile that would let Siberian simply fade into the background. He kept the neon shirt, though, its bright colors resonating with something he didn’t want to acknowledge.
Having deliberately gone farther from the safehouse than he strictly needed to, Nagi stood in front of the train station and found the trip back – switching at multiple stations and at least one long and boring stretch – unappealing at best. A cafe across the street reminded him that he hadn’t eaten, and he had no idea of Siberian had eaten before Nagi had gotten up. He took a step toward it, fully intending to spend as much time as possible lingering in the public area.
Where are you? The voice in Nagi’s head echoed with the peculiar overtones that meant that Schuldig was both searching for him and not particularly far away.
Nagi grimaced. “Machida,” he said, and Siberian looked at him curiously.
Why? Schuldig sounded irritated now, but his mental voice was clear enough that Nagi thought Schuldig knew where he was.
“Hidaka needed clothes,” he said. “So did I.” He thought Schuldig might pick up on the mental image of Nagi’s sad lack of training-appropriate attire if he visualized it hard enough.
Brad’s annoyed, Schuldig sent.
“Of course he is,” Nagi muttered. “We’re going to eat before we come back. I’m starving.” It was true, he realized as he said it, although he didn’t have the best track record when it came to reminding himself to eat regularly. “And Hidaka’s supposed to eat with these stupid pills. Which it is time for. Which you wanted me to remember to do.”
Fine, fine, whatever. Have fun on your date. The sense of Schuldig vanished before Nagi could snipe at him for his choice of words, and Nagi frowned. Siberian was still giving him a quizzical look and Nagi sighed.
“I want tea,” he said, and Siberian followed him readily enough. Although he had been less tense in the shop, he was all but glued to Nagi’s side again and pale. It was almost dark, the sun having set and the last of the twilight fading from the sky. “And you look like you need to not be moving.” Not that Siberian was complaining, but he looked faintly green around the edges, now that Nagi was looking at him more closely.
There was a table overlooking the train station inside the cafe and Nagi stationed Siberian at it with their shopping while he went off to collect something resembling dinner for both of them. The cafe didn’t have much in the way of food, but he returned with enough. Siberian was staring out the window when he got back, and Nagi followed his gaze.
The crowd below surged and pulsed, a steady flow of passengers entering and exiting the station, the buzz of voices audible through the open window. Traffic sounded in the distance, and Nagi could almost feel the buzz of the fluorescent streetlights. “What are you looking at?” he asked, not expecting an answer.
“They’re so loud,” Siberian said softly. “They feel so much.”
“Uh huh.” Nagi slid onto the bench opposite his teammate. “Eat something. It’ll help.” He shook out another dose from the little orange bottle, watching Siberian swallow it. If anything, the green intensified, and Nagi pushed the least likely option to make it worse toward him. He eyed Siberian until the other man took a tentative bite and seemed to relax slightly before turning his attention outward.
It hadn’t escaped Nagi’s notice that Siberian flinched every time the press of humanity below them thickened. He didn’t care that Siberian didn’t like being in the middle of a crowd, he told himself, he wasn’t ready to go back to Schwarz’s temporary home. He was so busy avoiding looking at Siberian that when a familiar and unexpected figure stepped out of the train station, Nagi was in exactly the right position to notice.
Knowing that Weiß had survived from Crawford’s story and seeing Hidaka in a Los Angeles hotel room did nothing to mitigate the odd shock of seeing another member of the team. Nagi somehow still thought of them all in the past tense, and the sight of Kudo Yohji making his way through the crowd caught him by surprise. He must have made some sort of sound, he thought, because Siberian glanced up at him and then out the window.
“Don’t look,” Nagi said, but it was too late. Siberian was staring at his former teammate, eyes wide and without even what little color he’d regained while sitting still.
“Yo-” Siberian started to say and then stopped with a strangled sound, deep in the back of his throat.
Kudo vanished into the swirl of people, walking past the cafe and out of sight, and Siberian’s shoulders started to drop. Nagi sat back, feeling simultaneously disappointed that Siberian hadn’t gone running after his former teammate and annoyed that he’d reacted to his presence at all. “It’s time to go,” he started to say, and the cafe door – having hosted an intermittent stream of traffic since Nagi had entered in the first place – collaborated with the universe in general to make Nagi’s immediate situation worse by disgorging Kudo into the narrow space.
Siberian’s back was to the door, still radiating tension, and for the first time Nagi was glad that Schuldig had chosen to bleach his hair as a penalty – Kudo’s gaze swept over them both without any sign of recognition. Nagi watched him, out of the corner of his eyes, as Kudo stepped up to the corner to ask for something and then meandered farther into the cafe to wait for his order to come up. Siberian still hadn’t seen his teammate come in, but if Nagi tried to leave now, the two members of Weiß would recognize each other.
“I’d have to kill him,” Nagi murmured, and found that he didn’t really want to; the thought filled him with a bone-deep exhaustion weighing on his limbs. It would be so much easier if Kudo had no idea they were there at all. His best option was to keep Siberian’s attention on the window, Nagi thought, and then Kudo took the choice out of his hands entirely.
Time seemed to slow, passing in infinitesimal increments so that the moment Kudo’s eyes widened and a look of recognition spread across his face lasted an eternity. Nagi couldn’t hear him from across the noisy cafe, but he could see Kudo’s lips shape the word Schwarz before his eyes looked automatically across the table. The stunned shock and the way the paper cup slid halfway out of Kudo’s hand before his grip tightened would have been hilarious, in almost any other situation, and Nagi had to suppress the urge to laugh.
“What the fuck is going on?” Time snapped back into place, the sound of voices in the background resuming and failing to mask Kudo’s low and furious voice as he strode across the floor.
Nagi stood, shoving his chair backwards. It fell with a loud clatter, temporarily silencing the crowd around them, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Siberian look up and freeze. Nagi glanced around the cafe; no one was looking directly at them, but he could see the sidelong glances. “Not here,” he said quietly.
“What the hell – you’re – why – I want an explanation!” Kudo wasn’t any louder than Nagi had been, but it made him no less conspicuous.
“Outside,” Nagi said. Siberian was staring at Kudo, shaking, eyes wide. If Nagi hadn’t known better, he would have said Siberian was terrified; as it was, he recognized the signs of a mental struggle against Schuldig’s handiwork.
“Ken,” Kudo said, and Siberian flinched hard.
“Outside,” Nagi repeated. “Please.” He had the ability to crush the entire shop into rubble, but it would attract more attention than he wanted.
Kudo tried to cross his arms and came up against the fact that he was still holding a paper cup. He settled for putting his empty hand on his hip, and it shouldn’t have come across as stern and menacing, but Nagi shivered anyway. “Let’s go,” Kudo said tightly.
Nagi gathered the bags he’d acquired – he would be damned if he lost them now, not when the entire trip had turned into such a fiasco – and coaxed Siberian to his feet. “It’s okay,” he said, cupping Siberian’s face in both hands and looking into Siberian’s eyes. “Come on.”
Siberian stared at Nagi as though he were a lifeline and stood up slowly. Nagi let go of him, reaching for a hand instead. Siberian gripped it tightly enough to hurt, gaze still fixed on Nagi.
“After you,” Nagi said to Kudo.
“The fuck,” Kudo said, but he led the way out toward the street.
The closest approximation of privacy was a corner holding a pair of vending machines tucked under a set of stairs. It wasn’t particularly sheltered from the passing crowd, but Kudo led them toward it and gestured for Nagi to walk past him. Knowing that Kudo wanted the clear line to the exit, Nagi complied. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t get past a man with a wire, and from the look of him, Kudo was more than likely entirely unarmed. His wrists were bare, and Nagi had never seen him use any other type of weapon.
“Well?” Kudo didn’t try to physically pull Siberian away, but his hands were restless. “Ken?”
“You’re confusing him,” Nagi said. Siberian was still clinging to Nagi’s hand, face buried in Nagi’s shoulder despite the five-centimeter height difference. Nagi wondered briefly if it would be easier to just let Kudo have his teammate, instead of killing him.
“I’m confusing him? What the fuck are you doing with him?” Kudo circled around Nagi, hovering just behind Siberian. His voice dropped lower, gentle and sympathetic. “Ken, come on. Look at me. Tell me what’s going on.”
“You left him behind,” Nagi said. “What do you care?” He was upset on Siberian’s behalf, he was surprised to discover. What right did Kudo have to act as though he were concerned for Siberian’s welfare when he was the one who’d throw him away to begin with. Why do I care, he thought. I hate him.
“You have no idea,” Kudo said, and Nagi was abruptly aware of how much taller Kudo actually was. He was pure lean muscle, and even with Nagi’s ability to crush objects with nothing more than a thought, Kudo was registering as a threat. “You have no idea,” Kudo said again. “You think it was an easy decision to make?”
“I think you made it,” Nagi spit back. He would never have left any of his teammates behind; he would have died before abandoning them. Farfarello’s gone, though, isn’t he? taunted an internal voice; it sounded almost like Kudo, and Nagi snarled at it. He chose to leave us. That’s different.
“I don’t think you have any right to talk,” Kudo retorted, and it took Nagi a second to recall the conversation he’d been having out loud, instead of the one in his head. Siberian’s saner than you are, he thought. “Whatever you’re doing to him, stop it and let him go,” Kudo added.
“Schwarz pulled him out of the hole you left him in,” Nagi reminded him. I should just kill him and go, but I don’t want to. He would miss Weiß, somehow, if he knew they were gone, and that was the part of him that was the most twisted. Weiß was a distorted mirror of the justice they purported to uphold, and Nagi knew he shouldn’t care whether or not they were active or even alive, but the core of their idealism gave him a sliver of hope.
“You – I would have given almost anything,” Kudo said. “Ken, please look at me. I’m sorry.”
Nagi felt the choked-off sound in Siberian’s throat rather than hearing it, and Siberian clutched him more tightly. He was going to leave bruises, Nagi thought distantly. “Siberian,” he said softly.
“I can’t,” Siberian said, the words almost unintelligible.
“Come back with me,” Kudo said, and put a hand on Siberian’s back.
Siberian froze, barely even breathing, and for a moment Nagi thought Kudo had managed to break him entirely before he realized that Kudo had frozen as well. The thinning crowd continued to walk past the alcove, and Nagi frowned. “Schuldig,” he said.
“You’re causing me a lot of trouble,” Schuldig said, appearing around the corner. “I don’t know why you didn’t just kill him.”
“Really?” Nagi blinked. “You can’t tell?”
“I can tell that you can’t tell either,” Schuldig said. “Really, Nagi?”
Nagi shrugged with his free shoulder. “The world is a more interesting place with them in it,” he said.
“You’re not the one that has to wipe his memory,” Schuldig said. “Both of them.”
“How hard can it be,” Nagi said. “Kudo doesn’t have much up there but air.”
“Oh, you’re a comedian now.” Schuldig rolled his eyes. “Just shut up and let me work.”
Despite his words, it only took a few moments for Kudo to straighten and drop his hand, face blank. He turned without a sound and walked around the corner, melting into the crowd that almost wasn’t there.
“Probably won’t last,” Schuldig said speculatively. “If we’re lucky, it’ll make him crazy. Crazier.” He chuckled, and put an almost gentle hand on the back of Siberian’s neck. “Let’s see what’s going on in there, kitten.”
Before Schuldig finished speaking, Siberian relaxed against Nagi’s shoulder and stepped away. He stood with the same blank expression Kudo had had for a few seconds, and then blinked and looked at Nagi. “Are we going?” he asked.
“What the hell,” Schuldig said. “Hold still.” He reached for Siberian again, and Siberian moved out of the way as though it were an accident. “Goddammit,” Schuldig said, and Siberian stilled. Schuldig gripped his chin, fingers gouging into Siberian’s soft flesh. Siberian didn’t flinch. “Well, that’s interesting.”
“What?” Nagi asked.
“He put himself back in the box,” Schuldig said, fingertips trailing across Siberian’s jaw. “Doesn’t look like he wanted to come out.” He leaned in. “Guilt, thicker than honey, laced with pain.” His shoulders shook with laughter, and he grinned at Nagi. “He feels guilty for having been caught in the first place, and doesn’t think he deserves to go back. Kudo feels guilty for failing to rescue him. It’s delicious.”
“Whatever.” Nagi pushed past Schuldig and walked toward the train station, the bags he’d nearly forgotten tangling in his legs and making him stumble. “Are you guys coming or what?” It made his guts twist unpleasantly, to think of the misery that Siberian was apparently keeping under lock and key, and Nagi hated that he felt even the slightest stirrings of empathy. Remember that you hate him for what he did to you. The shadow that fell in just a step behind him and a little off to the side, watching his back, made holding onto that hate just a little more difficult.
Siberian slept curled around Nagi that night, breath pressing a gentle rhythm against Nagi’s shoulder. Nagi lay awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering why, when Siberian had hesitated before obeying his instruction to spend the night in the other room, Nagi had beckoned him closer instead. He should have been pushing him away, not welcoming his touch. The too-warm weight against Nagi’s side felt like an anchor, both holding Nagi securely in place and refusing to let him move freely. “What the fuck am I supposed to do with you?” Nagi murmured.
The training Crawford had wanted Nagi to undergo, Nagi reasoned, could be temporarily delayed. Gauging by the amount of time he slept if no one woke him, Siberian clearly needed the time to recover from whatever was wrong with him. Nagi dutifully medicated him on time and left him alone for the most part, and spent his time looking for Weiß.
Kudo’s unexpected appearance in the alley had been an unwelcome shock, and Nagi told himself that he wanted to avoid it happening again. Kritiker had always been good at covering its tracks, particularly when Omi had been in charge of security, but Nagi was better. He’d been keeping tabs on Kritiker the last time Schwarz had been in Japan – the memory of the cold water of Tokyo Bay flashed, and Nagi shivered – and he revisited his old sources with little hope for results.
“I hate being right,” Nagi said to his laptop. None of the protocols he’d set up two years before were active in any useful way. He considered for a moment asking Crawford if he was aware of Kritiker’s movements, and discarded the idea. He didn’t want to explain what he was doing, until he had information that justified it. “He would have to be, though,” Nagi added, stabbing at the keyboard with a single finger. “They’re the ones Schwarz has to avoid.”
Siberian wandered down the stairs, hair ruffled and eyes heavy-lidded, and Nagi glanced up. Siberian sank into the chair opposite Nagi, resting his chin on his folded arms, and blinked.
“Shower and dress,” Nagi told him, and Siberian sighed before getting up and vanishing back up the stairs. Nagi ignored him the next time he came down, the sound of water running behind closed doors fading from his consciousness as he worked outwards from what he already knew. Kritiker was doing a better job of covering its digital tracks, but short of disbanding entirely, the group couldn’t hide itself.
Siberian settled into the same chair, damp hair and clean clothes, and looked up at Nagi.
“It’s too early,” Nagi told him, and Siberian had the gall to look disappointed. “And no, you can’t go by yourself.”
The only activity Siberian tried to initiate without permission had been running – not an attempt to escape, but a long and winding route around the neighborhood – and Crawford had shrugged and told Nagi to go with him. Nagi suspected ulterior motives, but he had no idea what they might have been. Given that Siberian was still recovering, he went slowly enough that Nagi could keep up, slowing to a walk more often than not. Nagi had decided that the right time for Siberian’s excursions was early evening, as the sky started to turn brilliant colors behind the encroaching buildings, in the vague hope that Siberian would forget he wanted to go if he had to wait long enough. So far, it hadn’t worked.
“Would you,” Nagi said out loud, and broke off. Siberian looked at him curiously, and Nagi hesitated. He hadn’t tried to use Siberian as a resource to find Kritiker; he didn’t know whether Siberian knew anything useful, and it felt like more of a betrayal than anything else Schwarz had done with the former Weiß member. Nagi pushed away the vague feelings of guilt; using the resources available wasn’t a moral compromise, it was practical. Results were what mattered, not how one got to them. “Siberian,” he said, and started asking questions.
Even with Siberian’s assistance, it took Nagi several days to narrow down the vast quantity of useless information available. He learned that Abyssinian’s sister was running the flowershop that had previously been Weiß’ cover story, and that Weiß had been running a mobile flowershop as a secondary cover story after the incident in Tokyo Bay.
“How did you all live in that without killing each other? Don’t answer that,” he added when it looked as though Siberian was going to speak.
A bright Tuesday morning was the day Nagi figured out where Weiß had been stationed; he was chagrined to discover that they were barely two stops down on the same train line as the location Crawford had chosen for Schwarz’s temporary hideout.
“Did he do this on purpose?” Nagi asked, closing his laptop with more force than necessary. Siberian was getting his stamina back, and Nagi had sent him out to run alone. It was hard enough to keep up with the hand to hand instruction Crawford had insisted Nagi finally start. Given that Siberian pinned Nagi to the mat five times out of five during every session, Nagi wasn’t sure any part of what he was learning was useful.
Siberian chose that moment to return, sweaty and flushed, looking as close to content as he ever did. Nagi thought, with an unpleasant twist, that if Siberian would encounter Weiß if he chose the wrong direction for his running, and that it would be a less than pleasant incident if he did. He felt that Crawford could have warned him, instead of giving him cryptic instructions not to leave Siberian alone, or at least told him where not to go.
“How was it?” Nagi asked awkwardly. If Siberian had seen his former teammates, he wouldn’t be calmly walking through the door, Nagi thought, but he had to ask anyway. He wasn’t sure he wanted Siberian to return to Weiß, not when Nagi was getting used to his presence. He was solid and comforting, if Nagi avoided remembering what Hidaka had done to Sister Amamiya.
“Fine,” Siberian said, but Nagi hadn’t expected any other answer. He let Siberian disappear into the shower for the second time, absently ticking off the mental box of two out of three, and went back to the innocuous little dot representing Weiß’ safehouse on his screen.
“Of course I know where Weiß is,” Crawford said, when Nagi asked. Crawford had barely gotten through the door, feet properly placed in the slippers Nagi and Siberian never bothered to wear.
“You didn’t think the rest of us needed to know?” Nagi asked, keeping his tone and his language from outright disrespect by the thinnest of threads.
“Schuldig knows,” Crawford said.
Nagi folded his arms. “I didn’t need to know?” he asked.
“You’re working toward other goals,” Crawford said.
“What goals?” Nagi burst out. “All I’m doing is failing to learn how to keep someone from pinning me to the ground without using the best skill I have.”
“Schwarz is going to start eliminating targets,” Crawford said, instead of answering.
“We’re keeping a low profile,” Crawford said, still refusing to answer any of Nagi’s questions.
“Because of Kritiker?” Nagi asked.
Crawford gave him a flat and almost inscrutable look, and Nagi flushed. Just because Crawford wanted to know what Kritiker was doing didn’t mean he considered them significant. “I’m turning over surveillance of their activities to you,” he said.
“Who’s been doing it,” Nagi muttered, but he suspected that it wasn’t active monitoring so much as Crawford getting flashes of useful information. “Wait, you can’t distract me with this. What do you mean, eliminating targets?”
The targets Crawford aimed Schwarz toward weren’t challenging, Nagi found, and elimination didn’t always mean the mission ended in death. The destruction of a certain section of highway or the collapse of a building previously inspected and found safe paid just as well and – in the incident with the well-controlled clandestine demolition – required Nagi to creatively apply his abilities in such a way that the collapse looked natural. It was surprisingly entertaining, particularly with Siberian running interference with the lone potential witness by faux-drunkenly and cluelessly asking for directions to a place that didn’t exist.
Receiving instructions to actually kill their third target therefore came as somewhat of a surprise; the client had ties to overseas organizations that Nagi tried not to think about too hard, the target’s assassination ordered as retaliation for something perpetrated off Japanese soil, and Nagi hadn’t expected the order even after hearing the details of the case. You know better, he told himself, sitting up straighter. What Crawford liked to call a briefing session took place at their dining room table, the atmosphere somewhat spoiled by Schuldig’s leftover coffee mug and a stray napkin Nagi hadn’t bothered to throw away.
“Quick in, quick out,” Crawford said. “The target will be on the fifth floor, in his office.”
“Guards?” Schuldig asked, almost idly.
“Negligible,” Crawford said. “Not inside the office itself.”
“Through the window, then?” Schuldig said, looking disappointed.
“Aim for the target, not for collateral damage,” Crawford said. “We’re not being paid for collateral. We’re being paid to make a statement.”
“Ghosts? Really?” Schuldig didn’t roll his eyes, but the unimpressed look he gave Crawford was nearly tangible. Predictably, it rolled right off Crawford’s return stare. “Oh, all right,” Schuldig said. “Through the window.”
Crawford smiled tightly. “I knew you’d understand,” he said, and then, somewhat to Nagi’s surprise, “Siberian, come here.”
The little unmarked box Nagi hadn’t seen since their first day back in Japan made an appearance, the waxy red square melting on Siberian’s tongue. Siberian shivered, and Shuldig shot him an irritated glare.
“Do you have to do that?” he asked, directing his ire at Crawford.
“It improves our situational awareness,” Crawford said.
“Are you complaining about my performance?” Schuldig snapped, and shifted uncomfortably. “He keeps projecting, Brad. He doesn’t know how to turn it off.”
“Deal with it.” Crawford tucked the box away. “We don’t need Weiß sneaking up on us again.”
“As if they’re a threat,” Schuldig muttered, but the tightness in his expression eased after a moment. “Well?” he added.
“I understand,” Siberian said, and Schuldig clapped him on the shoulder.
Getting into the target’s office wasn’t difficult. The building was full of the target’s associates and employees, none of whom heard Siberian break the window. Crawford slipped through, then Schuldig, and Siberian pulled Nagi into safety before the target had the wherewithal to do more than turn and stare at the empty frame in shock. Nagi missed most of the actual fight, breathing hard and feeling his mind slowly contract back into place. Holding his teammates’ weight off the ground was a difficult task, not to mention lifting them up to the fifth floor. Siberian had been the easiest, doing most of the climbing on his own and giving Nagi a hand when he needed it.
“Can you pin him to the ceiling?” Crawford asked.
Nagi looked up, the edges of the room wavering slightly before snapping solidly into immobility. The target was dead, throat slashed deeply enough to show his vertebrae on the other side, and Siberian was looking intently at the door. “I think so,” he said.
“Schuldig,” Siberian said, mouth working as though he wanted to say something else but unable to find the words.
Schuldig moved to stand behind Siberian, glancing from side to side before frowning. “Quickly,” he said. “If you still want us to be ghosts.”
“Weiß,” Crawford said. “Apparently they were hired to assassinate the target for entirely different reasons.”
“Get on with it,” Schuldig said, and Nagi lifted the body to the ceiling. Crawford did the actual work of fastening it in place, with Nagi making sure the body would stick. Red dripped from the corpse’s neck in an irregular stream, and Nagi swallowed hard. “They’re coming,” Schuldig said. “They’re a little distracted by the army between them and us.” He paused. “You’re welcome.”
“Back out the window.”
Nagi’s strength gave out with less than a meter to go, and Siberian caught him before he hit the ground. None of his teammates stumbled but Nagi couldn’t quite manage to keep himself upright, and Siberian threw him over his shoulder. “Put me down,” he said, but the next thing he saw was his ceiling, blurred by a haze of pain.
“Why is it easier to bring down a building than to lift three people into the air,” he said out loud, and immediately regretted it as what had been a general sense of agony sharpened itself into spikes stabbing through his temples.
You know why, said a voice in his head, coupled with a sense of the fine control it took to not crush living beings into so much red mist, and it took Nagi a long moment to realize that it wasn’t his brain backtalking him.
“Stay out of my thoughts, Schuldig,” he said.
But they’re so sweet, Schuldig sent back, and cackled before his presence faded.
Nagi groaned and thought about trying to go back to sleep, but his head hurt too much. A cold shower helped ease some of the throbbing, and he felt nearly human until Siberian appeared in the doorway and expected him to pick up his physical training. Nagi nearly threw his coffee cup at him, stopping only because it would have been a waste of coffee.
“My instructions were very clear,” Siberian said carefully, and Nagi dropped his head onto the table.
To his annoyance, the first time Nagi managed to pin Siberian to the mat and keep him there was with the aftereffects of over-extending his abilities driving spikes into his skull. “Can we stop now?” he asked, hearing the plaintive note in his voice.
“You weren’t being careful,” Siberian said, and that he was volunteering information at all was so rare that Nagi blinked and sat up.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You hold back,” Siberian said. “You didn’t, today.”
Nagi felt that not screaming in frustration was a far more impressive feat of will than anyone was willing to credit him for, and settled for scrambling off Siberian instead. Siberian flinched anyway, until Nagi pushed the wave of emotion back down where it belonged. “I don’t hold back,” he said.
“Yes, you do.” Siberian raised himself up on one elbow. He looked composed again, almost sure of himself instead of a blank doll. “You don’t have to. I won’t break.”
“I’m not -” Nagi said, but Siberian wasn’t wrong. He had been holding back, unwilling to let his anger towards Hidaka have full reign; keeping a tight lid on his emotions had tamped down his ability to move freely. He didn’t quite have that same anger towards Siberian, he thought, not toward the shell that wasn’t really Hidaka Ken, and he still wanted him. Every touch felt like the brush of anticipation, and Nagi couldn’t let himself go any farther. The man in front of him wasn’t even really a person, it occurred to Nagi, and his stomach twisted around at the thought.
“Are you all right?” Siberian asked, and the expression of the closest Siberian had shown to genuine concern tipped the uncomfortable feeling into full-blown nausea. Nagi ran for the bathroom, heaving up what little he’d managed to eat.
“We’re done,” he said, when Siberian followed at a slower pace and hovered in the entrance hall.
Avoiding the one-on-one sessions with Siberian wasn’t a viable long-term option, particularly not when he was supposed to keep his eye on his teammate, but Nagi couldn’t look him in the eye. He’d known Siberian was more of a tool – a doll, without agency or initiative of his own – but it hadn’t bothered him until he’d managed to stop seeing Siberian as a reflection of Hidaka. What had been a vague sense of vindictive satisfaction at seeing the object of his hatred reduced to a near-puppet – a sense he hadn’t wanted to confront – was gone entirely.
“You don’t deserve this,” Nagi said, after successfully evading the majority of his teammates for three days running. The sun had fully set, and his reflection flickered between the slats of the blinds. He caught site of his face, eyes dark and empty, and turned away. “No one deserves this,” he said, as much to himself as to his nominal audience.
Sprawled across the bed in what was nominally his own space, Siberian didn’t answer with so much as a hitch in his deep and even breathing. Nagi slid open the door to the small balcony running the length of the safehouse and stepped into the cool October air. Diffuse light illuminated the small table and chairs set into the wider area in front of Crawford and Schuldig’s bedroom; the light in the room was on and the blinds closed, Nagi thought. He padded toward the small table anyway, taking care to walk silently in his socks.
The door was cracked open, the murmur of voices barely audible from inside. Nagi leaned on the railing, looking over the street. It was dark, clouds covering the moon and the streetlight in front of the safehouse burned out. Nagi had a momentary mental image of Weiß creeping toward them through the shadows and dismissed it; Weiß had no idea they were here. The voices inside dropped lower, the unmistakable sound of soft laughter drifting out, and Nagi felt that he was intruding on the core of Schwarz. He didn’t move, a vague sense of paralysis freezing him in place.
Stone skin, he thought, and could almost see the silicate threads holding him down and winding from his limbs to his heart. I don’t know if I belong here. It hadn’t been the same, since Farfarello had left. The balance the team had once had was fractured, and Nagi had been pretending that wasn’t the case. Crawford could feel it too, he thought, or he wouldn’t have dragged Siberian in as a replacement, no matter what he said about Siberian being useful.
Schwarz wasn’t about to fall apart, not in the sense of splintering dramatically into the four winds, but Nagi had an unshakable sense that their time as a team was limited. Is this what a premonition feels like, he thought, a sense of solid certainty clamped around his breastbone like a ledge he clung to in the uncertain flow of passing time. Stop that, he told himself, but he was breathing too quickly and the air felt stifling despite its coolness.
Crawford and Schuldig would stay together, Nagi was certain of it; the two of them had always been the center and driving force of Schwarz. Nagi had been caught, dragged along like a leaf in a whirlpool, rescued first by Sister Amamiya and then by Crawford, and he didn’t know who he was without the framework of Schwarz around him. The silence from behind the still-lit door failed to register, and he turned to face the corner of Siberian’s room. He couldn’t see anything through the door except the shadowed gap left by the open partition into his own sleeping space, but he knew Siberian was just on the other side of the sharply angled wall.
This is your fault, he thought resentfully. If Siberian hadn’t made him think about how he felt, Nagi could have continued to pretend the cracks in his team didn’t exist. Until they swallowed me whole. His anger drained away, replaced by bone-deep exhaustion, and Nagi sank into one of the hard chairs. He stayed on the balcony until the sun rose on his left, pale new light casting each shadow into sharp relief.
The next assignment came hard on the heels of Nagi’s sleepless night, fatigue a muffling cloak around Crawford’s briefing. The gist of the matter was that some sort of scheme involving abduction out of a string of clubs in Aoyama had picked the wrong victim. The contract wasn’t meant to disrupt the organization – from what Nagi could pick up, the police were well on track to handle that particular situation – but to eliminate the specific individual responsible for the choice of the victim in question.
“Family is messy,” Schuldig said, when Crawford finished briefing them on the particulars of the assignment.
“You might feel differently if it were your sister,” Nagi retorted, and Schuldig laughed. Nagi reconsidered; Schuldig had no ties to his blood relatives, and Nagi wasn’t convinced Schuldig would have gone to the lengths their client had if a member of Schwarz had been in the position of this particular victim. “Why not let the police handle this one?” Nagi added, trying to change the subject.
Crawford smiled, the light reflecting off his glasses. “He has a particularly slippery reputation. Nothing sticks. The client is convinced that he’d walk, even if arrested, and wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.” He paused. “The list of associates will not result in an increased paycheck. They may be handled according to Schwarz’ discretion.”
Schuldig snorted. “So we’re still not being paid for collateral,” he said.
Nagi simply nodded; leaving the small fry alive to be arrested or not was up to them individually, then. The club where the target was supposed to appear wasn’t a particularly trendy place, or perhaps it was the cutting edge of trendy – popping up like a mushroom after rain only to vanish after a few weeks with no forwarding address. He was less than pleased to hear that Crawford expected him to back Schuldig up from inside, but the reasoning was sound.
Can’t send Siberian into a club, too many variables, Schuldig said in the back of Nagi’s mind. And can you imagine Brad in there? He’d stick out like a sore thumb.
“I got it, thank you,” Nagi said, glaring. Crawford and Siberian would cover the rear exit, and Schuldig would flush their target toward it. Nagi would run interference with any of the target’s associates. At least, he thought, there was very little that could go wrong with Crawford’s flexible plan; it gave them room to react to unexpected situations. That Siberian had been dosed again with the compound in Crawford’s little unmarked box gave them the edge of additional extra-sensory awareness of the individuals around them, making Siberian more useful as a lookout.
Several hours later, Nagi was cursing his original estimate of how little could derail their assignment as – for the second time in a row – Weiß disrupted the path to the target. Are they planning this? he sent toward Schuldig, sharpening the words to points.
No, Schuldig sent back, infuriatingly refusing to take the bait. Abyssinian had been spotted in the club, holding up the bar and looking as out of place as Crawford would have. His pretty face had gotten him hit on relentlessly, much to Schuldig’s amusement, but none of his teammates were in evidence. Balinese is outside, Schuldig added, with the echo that meant he was speaking to more than one person.
If he sees us, I’ll just kill him, Nagi heard from Crawford, his mental speech devoid of the overtones that Schuldig’s mental voice carried. I won’t have a repeat of last time.
“Are there any other Kritiker agents?” Nagi asked. He hadn’t seen anyone he’d pegged immediately, but he very much doubted Kritiker would send Abyssinian inside a club without supervision. Or maybe they would, he thought, revising his opinion as Abyssinian let one of the target’s employees buy him a drink and then actually drank it. Nagi had seen the bartender add something to the drink, which Abyssinian had apparently failed to notice.
There he is, Schuldig said, dragging Nagi’s attention away from the tragedy about to play out in front of him. He’s near the back. Lucky us.
“Not so lucky,” Nagi said, moving as inconspicuously across the floor as he could. He could see the target as well, and at least two more of his employees watching Abyssinian’s meandering route toward the target, shepherded by the man from the bar. Nagi could see him losing coordination and alertness by the moment, not fighting it in the slightest when the target slung an arm across Abyssinian’s shoulders to lead him toward the back. “Schuldig, he’s headed outside.”
I see him, Schuldig sent, and Nagi found Abyssinian’s backup as she moved to intercept the target. Her face was hard, incongruous under her carefully arranged hair with its glittering red thread, and her movements didn’t match the pink and white frills of her short skirt and low boots. Nagi could see how easily she slipped through the crowd, the mock corset cinched at her waist hiding at least three sharp objects, and the play of muscle under skin not disguised in the slightest by shimmering pantyhose or long satin gloves.
Nagi bumped into her, dumping his entire nearly-full glass down the front of her dress. The tomato juice sank into the fabric, dripping downward slowly, and Nagi widened his eyes. “I am so sorry,” he said, putting his glass down hastily on the thin air next to the nearest table and then flinching as it hit the ground and shattered. “Oh, no. Oh, no.”
Abyssinian’s backup glared at him, not managing to match Abyssinian even at his least threatening. Nagi grabbed her shoulder with one groping hand and a napkin with the other, and started making an uncoordinated effort to mop up the tomato juice, deliberately smearing it more in the process.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again, blinking at her and letting his words slur together.
“It’s fine,” she said, and tried to brush past him.
“It’s not fine,” Nagi said. He couldn’t quite manage to cry on cue, but he distracted her enough that Schuldig had given him the signal to withdraw before he let her go. She stalked toward the back door and he slipped out the front, circling around to where Schuldig stood impatiently next to the car of the evening.
“Took you long enough,” Schuldig said, and Nagi climbed into the back seat.
“Well?” he said, as Crawford pulled the car smoothly into traffic. It had temporary plates, likely borrowed from a for sale lot, and Nagi felt a pang of sympathy for whoever had to report it missing.
“The target has been eliminated,” Crawford said, as though that were the important piece of information.
“Obviously,” Nagi told him. It hadn’t been in question. “Abyssinian?”
“Worried, were you?” Schuldig said, twisting around in the front seat to grin at Nagi.
Nagi elected to temporarily ignore the fact that Schuldig hadn’t answered his last question and pointed at Siberian, leaning against the window with his eyes closed. “How did that happen?” A mental image began to play out behind his eyes and Nagi half-heartedly flipped Schuldig off for use of his telepathy instead of just explaining what had happened.
“No, no, you’ll like this,” Schuldig murmurmed.
Nagi sighed and watched the scene. Seeing from Schuldig’s point of view was always a little disorienting, eyes looking from higher off the ground and the sensation of silky hair brushing his cheeks and neck. Schuldig had followed Abyssinian out the back door, the crimson of Abyssinian’s hair standing out even in the shadows as he leaned unsteadily on the target. Schuldig walked up behind one, two, three of the target’s bodyguards as they followed him toward the door and quietly slit their throats before they knew he was there, easing the bodies silently to the floor, until the target was alone. The outer door swung open, and Nagi could feel Schuldig’s memory of seeing Siberian’s silhouette on the other side.
Lost little kitten, Schuldig had said, but Nagi couldn’t tell if it had been out loud or purely in Abyssinian’s head. Abyssinian startled, nearly overbalancing and reaching for a weapon that wasn’t there. The target looked around, clearly discomfited first by Abyssinian’s flinch and then that he was alone in all the ways that mattered. Schuldig sauntered out the door, letting it swing shut behind him as Abyssinian finally closed his hands around the knife hidden in his gaudy belt.
“You want him dead, Brad?” Schuldig asked. The target stared at him with wide eyes and tried to run.
Schuldig froze him in place. Wait your turn, he said, and the target paled. Nagi could feel Schuldig savor the target’s terror, one step removed, and he shivered.
“I don’t think so,” Crawford said, as Siberian stepped forward.
Face blank, Siberian caught Abyssinian as he swayed again, hands on Abyssinian’s shoulders. Abyssinian looked up at him, eyes widening in recognition, grip tightening on the blade in his hands, and Schuldig had a thought. “Use Abyssinian’s knife,” he said, but Abyssinian didn’t want to let go of it.
Siberian guided Abyssinian’s hands to press the knife through the space between the target’s ribs instead, and Schuldig let go of his control of the target’s mind as it faded from his perception. The attention Schuldig had given the target dropped to nearly zero as Schuldig turned to the two members of Weiß. Siberian was all but holding Abyssinian up, face still blank.
“Do you know who that is?” Crawford asked curiously.
“Not mine any more,” Siberian answered, but his hands were still gentle as he steered Abyssinian toward the wall. The press of his certainty against Schuldig’s mind was uncomfortable, Nagi taking in mixed traces of Abyssinian’s shock and dismay along with Siberian’s guilt overlaid with an aching longing to see his original team again filtered though Schuldig’s impatience with the entire encounter. It was enough to give him a headache, and he hadn’t even been there.
“The rest of them are coming,” the memory of Schuldig said, jerking a hand over his shoulder. “We should get going, unless you want to play with the kittens, Brad.”
Siberian followed without complaint despite the wrench he felt leaving Abyssinian behind. They had barely melted into the shadows before Balinese dashed into the light and Schuldig smirked. He’d felt Siberian withdrawing into his mental box, holding it tightly shut. It didn’t cut off the flow of emotion, but it deadened it, and Nagi thought – although it hadn’t occurred to Schuldig – that while he could still feel what Siberian was trying to block, Siberian couldn’t.
Nagi swam up out of the memory to see both Siberian and Schuldig looking at him. He swallowed, letting the traces of Schuldig drain out of his head. “He picked us,” he said slowly, a small bloom of warmth in his chest at the thought. He tried to push it away but it stayed there, stubborn.
“More like he ran away from them,” Schuldig said. “Don’t get over-excited.”
“Still.” Nagi smiled at Siberian. “Do we still get paid if Weiß was the one who took out the target?” he added, because Siberian was just watching him without reaction, and it was unnerving. Nagi couldn’t help but read what he knew Siberian had been feeling into the blank gaze Siberian was turning on him now, and it was disorienting.
Crawford took his eyes off the road long enough to give Nagi a flat look in the rearview mirror. “You’re in charge of monitoring Weiß,” was what he said.
“Yes, sir,” Nagi muttered.
Surveillance on Weiß meant adding Crawford’s sources to his own, which did very little to alter the information to which Nagi had access. He knew when Bombay was discharged from the third hospital stay since Weiß had been sent to the States on the mission that had gotten Siberian separated from the rest of them, and that Bombay promptly engaged himself in a power struggle with Kritiker’s administration.
“Idiot,” Nagi said to his computer screen, not that Bombay could hear him or would care if he did. He informed Crawford of the mission Weiß had been assigned, and Crawford smiled tightly.
“I believe I have chosen which bid to answer,” he said, and Nagi saw the shadow of premonition in his eyes.
“Why?” Nagi asked. There was no reason for Crawford to deliberately position them opposite Weiß; they were no longer directly in conflict due to their respective employers – Schwarz was a free agent and could move as they willed.
“Events are set in motion,” Crawford said distantly. “Years from now, they come to fruition.”
Nagi bit his lip to keep from demanding more information; Crawford didn’t have it, or he wouldn’t have been so vague, and the lack of ability to put together the pieces was more frustrating to Crawford than it could have been to him. Nagi simply followed where he was led.
“I trust you,” he said to Crawford, and it was the truth. For as long as he remained a part of Schwarz, those words would be true. Crawford’s absent smile held as much warmth as he ever expressed.
“Watch Siberian,” Crawford told him, and Nagi rolled his eyes.
Keeping Siberian from jogging in the general direction of Weiß’ safehouse meant Nagi had to go with him, but it wasn’t as much of a hardship as it had been. He thought it was easier to keep up, even if he could tell that Siberian was still holding back. The bright sunlight coupled with the cool autumn air was a bubble of contentment that Nagi could have stayed in forever, and every time Siberian reached the end of his loop and turned back toward the safehouse, he felt a tiny pang of regret.
On the fifth day after the incident in the club – the third day after Bombay arrived in Weiß’ safehouse, the day Weiß was assigned to another task and Crawford made the decision to interfere – Nagi stopped running at the outer edge of Siberian’s arc and waited for the other man to notice he was no longer at his heels. It didn’t take long; Siberian slowed within a few steps and turned around. “Is something wrong?” he asked, walking back.
Nagi looked up at him. “Are you happy?” he asked.
“It’s not my place to feel,” Siberian said, eyes going blank and shuttered. The edge of warmth and concern he had shown as he’d approached Nagi was gone.
“Of course,” Nagi said, and wondered if he’d just seen Siberian’s mental box slam itself shut. The thought made him unaccountably sad. You hate him, he reminded himself, but the thought lacked conviction. Siberian had lost everything, even himself, and it was a more than fitting punishment for what he’d done. The sun blazed overhead, picking out the strands of Siberian’s hair and coaxing sparks of color into flickering life, reflecting off the sweat glistening on his skin, and Nagi still wanted more than he’d ever wanted anyone. “Goddammit,” he said. In the middle of the street, in broad daylight, not caring who might be watching, he pulled Siberian into a kiss.
Siberian didn’t flinch, pliant under Nagi’s touch, lips parting under the slightest of pressure. He didn’t respond actively, either, passively accepting without a flicker of reciprocation. Nagi pulled away, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth, and Siberian simply watched. He resembled a doll more than ever, limbs held in place by invisible strings, head tilted slightly to the side in a gesture that might have been quizzical but now seemed to represent a lack of will.
“Why didn’t you tell me to stop?” Nagi asked.
“Why would I tell you to stop?” Siberian returned.
“I...” Nagi’s mouth was dry, and he swallowed. “I don’t know. Go home.”
“I’m supposed to stay with you.” The whisper of defiance might have been Siberian acting of his own volition, within the confines of the work Schuldig had done, or it might have been a reconfiguration of his instructions. Nagi couldn’t tell. He couldn’t tell if Siberian hadn’t pushed him away because of the restrictions hedged around his mind, or because he’d been willing to offer what Nagi had wanted to take – still wanted to take, if Nagi were going to be honest with himself.
“I can’t tell the whole truth to anyone else,” he whispered, and felt the inevitability of it slot into place. It had been years, since Nagi had been able to trust anyone completely, and one of the people he’d trusted had murdered the other in punishment for her sins. “Just go,” he snapped, when Siberian leaned closer.
Whatever reluctance Siberian felt – or had been made to express – faded as he straightened and moved toward the safehouse at a quick run. He was out of sight around a corner in a matter of seconds, the sun a little less warm with his absence. Nagi followed, slowly, feeling the press of the ground against his feet and the air against his skin and wondering if the two of them might manage someday to crush him entirely. The gray emptiness in his chest was seeping into his limbs, dragging him toward immobility. Does it even matter, if I can tell anyone the truth? No one wants to hear.
Siberian was showering, when Nagi stepped through the door, and he retreated upstairs to his bedroom and then to the corner of the balcony invisible from either of the two small bedrooms. All I do is run away, he thought, but he couldn’t make himself step back inside. What am I doing. Why am I even still here. The door to the main bedroom was open, curtains rustling in the breeze, but not loudly enough to block out the sound of Siberian walking up the stairs. There was a moment of silence, and Nagi closed his eyes.
“Nagi.” Siberian was standing over him, and then kneeling beside him. “Naoe Nagi,” he said, and it sounded like absolution, or benediction, and Nagi didn’t deserve any of it. He pulled Siberian to him anyway, tasting the dampness of soap-tinged water on his lips, and this time, he didn’t hesitate before leading Siberian inside. The lurking hollowness at his core seemed to recede, just a little, with the touch of skin on skin, and Nagi couldn’t let it go.
The guilt crept out later, trickling into Nagi at every point of contact while Siberian curled protectively around him. “You’re not supposed to be like this for me,” Nagi said into the hollow of Siberian’s throat, words lost in the salt taste of sweat. Siberian didn’t give him a verbal answer, but he didn’t let go, and the void crept over Nagi again to weigh him down like stone.
The assignment Crawford had chosen involved watching for the transfer of people from one vessel to another; something about customs and inspections. Nagi paid no attention to the particulars. He dressed for the assignment with slow hands, the sensation of stone threading through his skin keeping his movements hesitant and heavy.
“The target won’t show,” Crawford said, perhaps misreading Nagi’s actions. He slid the unmarked box back into his pocket, and Nagi tried not to frown at it.
“Then Weiß will,” Nagi said, not bothering to correct Crawford.
Crawford simply smiled at that. Nagi finished tying his shoes and stood. He still had no idea why Crawford wanted to push a confrontation with Weiß, no matter what Crawford had said about events being set in motion, but he didn’t want to lose Siberian. “We don’t have to go,” he said.
“We do.” Crawford opened the door and gestured for Nagi to precede him out into the gathering twilight. Schuldig and Siberian were waiting outside, Schuldig frowning as he blocked out Siberian adjusting to his artificially enhanced psychic abilities. It took longer for Siberian to manage the initial flood of extra information, Schuldig had mentioned the last time Crawford had dosed their teammate, but the color returned to his face and he looked at Nagi expectantly.
Nagi had the sudden thought that if he refused, if he didn’t play along, that whatever Crawford had seen wouldn’t happen. He could stay in the little bubble-that-was, the warm October days and cool, crisp nights, and the world would drift past him. Stop acting childish, he heard, and it sounded like Schuldig. Nagi knew that it wasn’t. He took a deep breath and stepped out the door.
The target’s alleged location – where Crawford knew the target wouldn’t show, and was making them observe anyway – was near the bay, salt thick in the air. It brought memories of the last time Schwarz had faced off against Weiß in the middle of the ocean, and Nagi shuddered. The stockyard providing the best vantage point was laid out in a grid, easy enough to slip into and stretching farther than Nagi could see in striated bands of light and shadow.
“This way.” Crawford walked briskly, and Nagi jogged to keep up. Siberian glided effortlessly at his side, until Crawford stopped abruptly. “Observe,” he said to Siberian. “Do not engage. Take whatever position allows you to see.”
Siberian nodded and vanished down one of the many narrow aisles. The ridged sides of the shipping containers seemed claustrophobic, swallowing him before he should have been out of sight. Keeping Siberian out of the confrontation made very little sense; if Crawford had wanted him to be aware of the minds of those around him, Siberian should have been on the ground with the rest of his team.
“Crawford,” Nagi said hesitantly.
“He stays back, unless we need him,” Crawford said. “He’ll know when that is.” He started walking again, without so much as checking to see if Nagi would follow. Nagi fell in behind him, until the glance Crawford threw his way told him to stay back.
“You know what to do,” Schuldig said, and darted down another alley. Sand crunched under his boots, spread out in irregular puddles across the tarmac.
Nagi held his ground for no more than a few seconds before scrambling up the side of the nearest accessible container. Crawford stood below him, white suit all but glowing in the half dusk and throwing back the artificial gleam of the streetlights in a purer form. Balinese came into view at the end of the alley, pausing as he caught sight of Crawford. He pulled something out of his ear and a woman Nagi didn’t recognize appeared next to him.
The ground shook under Weiß’ feet, sending the woman stumbling into the nearest shipping container to slam hard against the sharply edged metal, but Balinese darted forward. His gait was steady despite the rumbling earth, and his wire lanced forward to ensnare Crawford. Nagi let the shaking ease off, unable to keep Balinese overbalanced while holding the ground under Crawford’s feet steady, but Crawford reacted to Balinese’s suddenly surer movements by stepping smoothly to one side.
The wire sailed by, ricocheting off a street light and bouncing right back to Crawford. He raised his hand, catching it and tugging Balinese forward. Abyssinian rounded the same corner, running hard, and Nagi held him in place.
“None of that, now,” Nagi heard Schuldig say, as if he were the one responsible for keeping Abyssinian immobile. Nagi looked for the fourth member – Weiß always had four – but he couldn’t find him. Only the three he’d already seen; one was on the ground, shaking her head dazedly and not about to cause trouble. The other two stood bare meters away from Crawford, familiar and not a threat and Nagi’s stomach was in knots anyway.
“Schuldig,” Abyssinian growled, and Nagi had been very careful to let him keep breathing.
“Kitten, I’m not the one you’re looking for,” Schuldig said, and sauntered into view. Abyssinian made the obvious connection.
“Nagi,” he said, and Nagi stood up to his full height. The movement caught Abyssinian’s eye, and Nagi jumped lightly down. He hit the ground with a fraction of the momentum he should have, recklessly spending his energy on a show of force he didn’t have. Schuldig glared at him for a half a second before Abyssinian paled. “Get out of my mind, Schuldig,” he said.
The entire field was no longer within his line of sight, and the short knife rapidly approaching his face took Nagi by surprise. He slipped just a little to the side, the knife no quicker than Siberian’s striking hands, and it nicked his ear. He lost control of his grip on Abyssinian, only to find Abyssinian had switched focus to him. Nagi dodged again, stepping out of the way of Abyssinian’s blade, and began to hold him into place again. He didn’t see Abyssinian scoop sand off the ground and fling it toward his face, and the pain of it in his eyes distracted him enough for Abyssinian to tackle him inelegantly to the ground.
Nagi felt the back of his head strike the pavement and the sky above him wavered. His limbs lost their strength, gravity pulling him downward at every point. At the edge of his vision, Nagi could see Crawford dancing with Balinese, wires glittering between them, and Schuldig’s laugh rang in his ears. Abyssinian abruptly blocked out the sky, blade raised for a killing blow, and Nagi couldn’t focus enough to push him away. His thoughts felt slow and sticky, and even looking at Abyssinian seemed like a monumental task.
“Stop!” Siberian screamed, and Nagi almost smiled.
“I knew you’d...” The next word wouldn’t come, beaten into nonexistence by the thumping beat of Siberian’s footsteps as he knocked Abyssinian away from Nagi’s prone form and Nagi lost his connection with his senses entirely. Don’t do it, he thought, but the sounds lay heavy on his tongue instead of echoing in his ears. The sky faded, the last sound he heard the unmistakable ring of Siberian’s claws slipping free of their sheath before Nagi slid into the waiting dark.
Chapter 14: Confrontation
Static punctuated Abyssinian’s voice, the single syllable ending in a grunt as Abyssinian hit the ground, and Omi heard Siberian’s trademark claws sliding out. The bottom of his stomach dropped, his heart plunging to the ground, and Omi felt the edge of the desk in front of him biting into his palms. They slid, sweat slicking his skin as his throat froze itself shut.
Balinese, this time, voice muffled as it filtered through his displaced comm. The whine of his wires came through more clearly, and Omi couldn’t see what was going on. He drew in a ragged breath, still unable to speak. There had been no indication, no hint that Schwarz had picked up another member. Omi hadn’t seen it coming. Ken was still alive and Omi had had no idea.
Despite how seldom Weiß had seen Schwarz – how few times they had actually interacted, on the field or off of it – Omi recognized Crawford’s voice with absolute certainty. It brought him back into focus, the world wavering just a little around the edges as Omi hung onto the sounds coming out of his comm like a lifeline.
“Halt,” Crawford continued, and the crunch of footsteps on sand sounded, slow and deliberate. Omi had the mental image of Crawford pacing forward. The stockyard had security cameras, he thought suddenly, cameras that he had located and discarded. Kritiker would have viewed it as a power play, for Omi to watch Weiß’ mission as though he lacked trust, but Omi pulled them up now. His fingers flickered across the keyboard as he broke through the less than impressive security.
“He…. He….” It was Ken’s voice, garbled and indistinct, less clear than the second-hand transmission through the audio pickup of someone else’s comms could account for. “Nagi,” Ken said finally, and that was clearer. Omi’s stomach twisted.
“Leave him be,” Crawford said.
The scramble of motion couldn’t be clearly interpreted, but the camera feeds were popping up on Omi’s screen, now, and one of them was right above the confrontation. Omi enlarged the window, just barely remembering to set the proper safeguards to keep his intrusion from being traced back. When he could start watching his teammates, the four of them were standing in a knot across from the four members of Schwarz – three members of Schwarz and their captive, Omi reminded himself, but Ken’s body language wasn’t that of a prisoner.
Crawford was standing a little in front of the rest of his teammates, arrogant and assured, and Abyssinian faced him with a drawn katana. The streetlights gleamed off the blade – Abyssinian had yet to draw blood. Balinese stood to Abyssinian’s left, and their two temporary teammates hovered on Abyssinian’s right. They were far enough away not to interfere with Abyssinian’s freedom of movement with his chosen weapon, but their positioning left a clear division down the center of Weiß.
Nagi was on the ground behind Crawford, sitting more or less upright but listing to one side with his head in his hands. Siberian crouched next to him, fiercely protective in the way Omi remembered, and it felt wrong that the person Ken was protecting wasn’t a member of Weiß. Schuldig stood a little off to the side, one hip thrust forward and a smirk Omi could see even with the low quality of the video.
“We’re not here to cause trouble for you,” Crawford was saying, and it was harder to hear across the gulf between the two teams.
“I don’t care why you’re here,” Abyssinian said, voice coming through loud and clear. “You have something of ours and we want it back.”
“Treating your comrade like a possession?” That was Schuldig, amusement overlaying scorn. “Instead of a person with a will and mind of his own? That’s low, Abyssinian.”
“Ken.” Abyssinian switched focus, but Siberian didn’t so much as look up. Omi could see him shudder, but he didn’t think Abyssinian could. Crawford was standing between the two of them, blocking Abyssinian’s line of sight. “Ken, come here.”
“Calling him like a dog, I’m impressed!” Schuldig said cheerfully. “You don’t want that, do you, kitty?”
Ken shivered again, putting a hand on Nagi’s shoulder. Nagi leaned into the touch, and Omi could see Ken relax as if the touch grounded him. A sour taste flooded his mouth, the bitter taste of betrayal thick on his tongue as the only interpretation he could make played itself out at the forefront of his mind. He betrayed us for – he left me for – how could he?
“Ken,” Abyssinian said again, and Ken’s grip on Nagi tightened.
“I don’t think he wants to go over there,” Schuldig said, taunting now.
“What did you do to him?” Abyssinian snapped, and part of Omi’s thoughts cleared. He’d seen Schuldig influence others before; a memory of the face of Tomoe Sakura swam into brief focus, so similar to little Aya, as she pointed a gun at Weiß under Schuldig’s control.
Ken wouldn’t, he thought. Schuldig has to be making him do it.
“Abyssinian, withdraw,” he said. “This requires negotiation.”
“Negotiation?” Abyssinian spit out, loud enough that Crawford heard him clearly.
“Kritiker wants to negotiate for the return of its operative?” he said. “Or Bombay?”
“Shut up,” Abyssinian said.
“Tell him – tell him Bombay is willing to negotiate on Kritiker’s behalf,” Omi said desperately. He knew Kritiker wouldn’t bargain for the return of their operative, and that reporting Siberian’s presence as an apparent active member of Schwarz would underwrite the death sentence already in place for Siberian’s inability to extract himself from a failed mission.
I didn’t want a power struggle, but I’m going to start one. Omi had been running, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t defined by his family or his past, and that Kritiker didn’t have to represent his future. He’d told himself that his continued attempts to at least graduate high school were his way out of the organization, that he didn’t have to roll over and let his family’s plans for him become his life. There’s no other way to save Ken.
“Bombay,” Abyssinian said, hesitantly. He knew as well as Omi did, even if he was often clueless about the sociopolitical undercurrents of Weiß’ relationship with Kritiker, that Omi was making a statement that couldn’t be taken back.
Omi bit his lip and closed his eyes. “Tell him,” he said, failing to speak above a whisper. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Tell him,” he said again, voice cracking slightly but firm and clear.
Abyssinian relayed the message, and Crawford turned to the camera and smiled. “Schwarz is willing to negotiate with Takatori Mamoru for the return of Kritiker operative Siberian,” he said.
“No!” The voice shouting in Omi’s ear startled him badly, and he flinched backwards in his chair hard enough to overbalance it. He scrambled to his feet, staring at the camera feed. It had been Calico who had screamed, he thought, but he didn’t know her well enough to tell her voice apart from Cyprus’. She spoke again, and Omi was sure. She stepped in front of Weiß, as if she could shield them. “They’re a threat to all of us, we can’t just let them go!”
“Do not engage,” hissed Cyprus, and Omi could see Cyprus grab her teammate’s arm and try to drag her backwards. “Those are our standing orders. Do not engage!”
“We have an edge,” Calico said, almost hysterically. “We can take them down and make everything better!”
“What edge?” Balinese had been silent, letting Abyssinian take point, but he turned sharply toward his squabbling teammates now. “What haven’t you told us?”
“I can do this,” Calico muttered, and if she hadn’t had the comm perfectly positioned, Omi doubted he would have heard it. He doubted Cyprus would have heard it, even from right next to Calico, but the comm picked up her voice and broadcast it. “I won’t let them get away this time!”
“Stop it!” Cyprus said, but Calico shook her off and stepped into the space between the two groups. The video feed shook as the wind picked up, circling around the field in irregular gusts.
“Nagi,” Crawford said, and the telekinetic rose unsteadily to his feet. Siberian supported him, and Omi was sure that without the help, Nagi would have fallen. With a look of pained concentration, Nagi held out one hand and the ground began to shake.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Calico said, and the earth fell silent. The only sound was the wind whipping back and forth, and Nagi’s face twisted. He stumbled, and Ken couldn’t keep him on his feet. “Not so easy without your powers, is it?” Calico said viciously, and Omi had missed this side of her entirely.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Cyprus backed away. “Who the hell are you?”
“Calico, stand down,” Abyssinian said, finally breaking free of the shock that had frozen him in place. “Stand. Down.”
“You’re going to ruin everything!” Calico gesticulated wildly. “Everything!”
Abyssinian moved to stand between her and Schwarz, and Omi could almost feel his skin crawling at the wrongness of the act. Abyssinian was following his instructions, though, trust in Omi higher than every other instinct he had. “Stop it!”
Calico tried to shove him aside, but Abyssinian could be as solid as a wall when he wanted to be and he didn’t budge. “You’re going to – we have to take them down, now, before they get away! This is what I do! This is what I was trained to do!”
Omi filed the words away, distantly cataloging them for later analysis. There were too many implications and he couldn’t afford the distraction. “Abyssinian, get her out of there,” he said. “Balinese, Cyprus, back him up. Tell Crawford we’ll be in touch.”
“Understood,” Abyssinian said, and turned his back on Calico. She put a knife in it, planting one of her stingers just above his shoulderblade and sending an incapacitating shock through the specially designed stinger. Abyssinian went down hard, katana skittering across the gravel, and Calico stepped past him.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Schuldig said, barely loud enough to hear over Omi’s second-hand audio feeds, and lifted his chin to stare at Calico.
“Get out of my head!” she screamed, and darted forward to throw her second stinger.
Time seemed to slow, the blade arcing through the air in minute increments. Omi could almost see the electricity crawling from its point to crackle down the handle, its path tracked by a fluid distortion emanating from Calico’s outflung hand. Schuldig stepped aside as the blade sailed past, face smooth with the lack of effort, and it vanished into the darkness behind him. The ripple followed, sliding across Schuldig’s form with barely enough force to stir his hair, but his eyes widened in shock.
The ripple had already enveloped Crawford when Omi thought to look at him, his attention following his intentions with glacial slowness. Omi took in his hard features, pressed-together lips vanishing into a thin line, and moved on. Nagi was still on his knees, one hand on the ground and the other pressed to his forehead, but Ken was no longer supporting him. Ken was down, unmoving, nothing more than a dark shadow taking up less space than it should have.
“-mi! Omi!” Balinese’s voice cut sharply across the comm and Omi choked off the cry he hadn’t realized he’d made.
“Balinese,” he started, and a single cracking retort echoed across the line. Sound flooded back, the wind dying down. Omi held the laptop screen in both hands, nose nearly pressed against it before he could make himself pull back enough to see. Crawford reholstered the pistol he wasn’t supposed to have, its shape vanishing under his perfectly tailored jacket before he glanced at the camera again.
Irrationally, Omi wondered how Crawford knew that he was watching through that particular lens.
“Bombay,” Crawford said, still smooth.
Calico staggered, at the edge of the screen, and fell just as Omi registered her presence. A dark puddle spread out beneath her, and Cyprus was on her knees beside the other woman in a failed attempt to stem the flow of blood. It was already too late; Omi could see how much she’d lost, and it was only a matter of time. That didn’t stop Cyprus from trying, and Omi felt a flicker of sympathy waver and dissolve as he watched her try and fail to do the impossible.
“Terms for the return of Siberian include cessation of Kritiker’s human experiments involving artificially induced superpowers.” Crawford straightened his jacket and glanced sideways at Schuldig, who shook his head slightly before throwing Ken over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. “We’ll be in touch,” he said, and Omi heard his precise steps crunch across the gravel as he pulled Nagi to his feet.
Schwarz walked away from the field, deliberately showing a moment of vulnerability. Balinese took one step toward their retreating backs.
“Withdraw,” Omi said. “Take Abyssinian and Cyprus and withdraw.”
The authorities would have to take care of Calico, Omi thought distantly, or Kritiker would have to send a retrieval team. Weiß wasn’t going to handle the matter.
“But -” Balinese said, and corrected himself before Omi could do it. “Understood,” he said. “Cyprus.”
The edge in his voice pulled their newest teammate to her feet and she helped Balinese collect a dazed Abyssinian. The field was clear seconds later, from Omi’s vantage point of his single camera. Calico’s comm was still active, and Omi could hear the odd echo of retreating footsteps through it. He turned off the connection to the other three.
Omi trusted Balinese to get his remaining two teammates to safety; they didn’t need babysitting, and he trusted that Schwarz wasn’t in any sort of shape to cause trouble. Oddly enough, he didn’t have the sense that Crawford would go back on his word. Reputation went a long way, in the circles in which Schwarz moved, and while Crawford had backstabbed his way right out of Esstset, he’d always moved to benefit Schwarz. His dictated terms would suffer, if he went out of his way to hurt Weiß now, and Omi thought he believed Crawford had given the gift of asking for a concession that Schwarz actually valued.
The implications of Calico’s power-dampening skill and Crawford’s demand couldn’t be put off any longer; Omi leaned back in his chair. If all of the information he thought he had was correct – and he would be verifying it, in triplicate – then Kritiker was farther along in their human trials than he’d assumed. That Kritiker wanted its own superpowered operatives wasn’t a secret, and that they’d been attempting to reverse-engineer the compound Weiß had been sent to America to babysit wasn’t a surprise either.
Omi hadn’t quite wanted to believe that Kritiker would experiment on its own operatives, though, or on any other test subjects. Calico hadn’t seemed as though she were an unwilling dupe, leaving the one thread of hope to which Omi could cling that Kritiker was at least getting informed consent from the participants in its trial run. The current point of concern, however, was that Omi hadn’t heard a whisper that Kritiker had decoded the information Weiß had brought back.
“I haven’t,” Omi said, and paused. Haven’t what, his internal voice asked him. “Haven’t anything,” he answered it. He’d been half in and half out, trying to position himself to walk away from Kritiker while keeping a metaphorical toe still in the water, and all it had left him with was abject failure. He hadn’t succeeded at any of his options because he’d failed to fully commit to a single one of them.
There is no keeping my options open, he realized. I have to be all in, or I have to walk away.
The thought of walking away from Kritiker entirely was dizzying in its promise of freedom, in the thought that he could define who and what he wanted to be on his own terms. Omi took a shuddering breath, savoring the idea that he could move in any direction he chose for a few long seconds. The brightness in his heart eclipsed the weight in it, just for an instant, and he felt moisture prick at the corner of his eyes. I could just be gone, when they come back, he thought distantly, and the pain of the thought drove the brightness away.
There isn’t anyone who can do it but me, Omi thought. Kritiker without a Takatori at the helm was sliding dangerously close to Rosenkreuz, experimenting on its own personnel to craft them into inhuman weapons, and there was no one else who was placed to put a stop to it. Omi was the only one who could direct Kritiker to be a force for justice, but he had to step forward and make it his. He wasn’t doing it for Ken, either, he told himself fiercely, or not just for Ken. Saving the life of the man he loved was a side effect, not a primary consideration. Keeping Kritiker in line with its own mission statement – no matter how much the words rang hollow – had to be Omi’s focus.
“Thank you,” he said softly into the single active comm, not knowing if Calico was still alive. The fleeting knowledge that the sense of hearing was thought to be the last to shut down flickered to the forefront of his mind, and he dismissed it. She wouldn’t have understood, even if she hadn’t been dying or dead, and she certainly wouldn’t have accepted his very real gratitude. “You’ve given me the leverage I need.”
The comms didn’t pick up sounds as subtle as a heartbeat, but if Calico had been breathing, Omi would have known. There was nothing but silence. He listened to it, watching the single camera feed in its own window and absently tracking Weiß’ process through the rest of the stockyard until they reached its edge and their getaway vehicle. Abyssinian was moving on his own by then, albeit shakily and with less than his usual grace. Omi switched off the other feeds, one by one, until only his view of the former battlefield remained.
Silence was slowly replaced by the filtered in sounds of the occasional car in the distance, a soft breeze brushing through the walls of corrugated metal, and the discordant nocturnal song of the season’s last crickets.
“The frost will come for you, too,” Omi said softly, and there was a catch in his voice. He felt something on his cheeks and was surprised to feel moisture. It doesn’t matter. I have to do what I have to do.
Negotiation, at its core, was simple – the wants of one pitted against the wants of the other, with compromise laid out in the overlapping edges. Finding the set of concessions with which Crawford was willing to live balanced against what Omi could arguably deliver still took weeks, and it didn’t matter that Crawford smirked when Omi warned him that it would be months or years before he could make good on some of his promises.
“I know you will,” Crawford said with an infuriating lack of mistrust, voice low and smooth over the phone, and Omi ground his teeth.
“Years,” he repeated. Crawford was willing to wait longer for actions that Omi would probably have taken anyway, but that he now would be unable to maneuver around, and giving up even that much of his future freedom felt like a piece of grit in his shoe.
“You’ll come through,” Crawford said lazily, and the connection cut off.
Omi stifled a sigh. Kritiker had to know what he was doing, had to know that he was trying to sink Persia’s favorite project, and yet there had been no repercussions. That Calico had been the most successful of the trial runs wasn’t enough of an explanation, but Omi had learned that the human trials had been pushed back to a date to be determined and he hadn’t been able to figure out why.
“You owe me,” Manx announced on the eve of the exchange.
“Abyssinian is returning to field duty, as of tomorrow.” Manx delicately put a sheet of paper on the cafe counter in front of Omi. “Weiß stands intact again.”
“You mean the three of us aren’t going to be shuffled onto different teams,” Omi said, voicing the outermost message without much thought.
“Seems a shame to break up a winning team,” Manx said, examining her manicure for chips. What she wasn’t saying was that she knew perfectly well what Omi had been working on, while Weiß stood down yet again and Omi and Yohji had been loaned out to other operations while they waited for Aya to recover.
“Did you -” Omi said, and coughed to clear the tremor out of his throat. He couldn’t ask Manx if she had interceded with Persia, as far as the human trials went; Omi wasn’t quite ready to go head to head with the man, no matter what impression he was trying to give Crawford. His ability to spontaneously craft a cover story left him.
“Did I what,” Manx said, face completely serious despite the lilting lightness to her voice. “Omi, you know better than not to ask a question.”
“Did you have a mission for us,” Omi said.
“Not tomorrow.” Manx smiled. “Although please keep me informed if you run into anything interesting.”
“I’m not sure interesting is the word I would have used for that particular stockyard,” Omi said, and when Manx gave him a hint of a smile, he knew he was right. “Thank you,” he said, the words rushed and awkward.
“Don’t thank me,” Manx said. “I’m just looking out for Kritiker’s assets.”
“Does Persia know?” Omi couldn’t help asking, knowing he shouldn’t try to force Manx to admit anything out loud.
“Persia is of the opinion that Weiß’ record stands on its own merits,” Manx said. “The benefits of a close-knit team outweigh the potential drawbacks.” She handed him an envelope, heavy with an object Omi couldn’t immediately identify by touch. “I was to give you this, if you asked.”
“Thank you,” Omi said automatically, and Manx strolled out the side door. The last of the sunlight caught her hair, lighting it up in a fiery crimson, and then she vanished into the crowd that wasn’t there. Omi opened the envelope to find a floppy disk, and he looked at it with apprehension.
The grow lights brightened, in the comparative darkness, and Omi tapped his fingers against the edges of the disk. He turned off the flowershop lights, glancing around at the empty room. Neither of his teammates were in the building, as far as he knew, and the shop was as prepared as it was going to get for the following day. I’m stalling, he realized, and climbed up the stairs to his bedroom on the second floor.
The laptop sitting on the built-in desk booted up with very little hesitation, and Omi slipped the disk into the drive. It contained a single video file, grainy and blurry, of a man’s silhouette against a dim window. “Persia,” Omi said softly. It was an amalgamation of the current Persia and the man he’d replaced, he thought, as he always did when faced with that particular image. The voice was often an odd blend as well, mechanical in its inflections.
The code-name was pure Takatori, and Omi suppressed a shiver.
“Kritiker has lifted the injunctions regarding the operative Siberian. Should the operative in question be recovered with expectations for reinstatement, Kritiker will support his reintegration into Weiß.”
The image flickered out, and Omi frowned. Regardless of what Manx had said, he hadn’t expected Persia to be quite so lenient. Kritiker expected its operatives to keep themselves out of trouble, to the point where self-termination was taught as a last resort. Pulling Aya out of the United States after the botched mission in New York had been enough of a stretch, and it had been clear that Kritiker wouldn’t countenance a second attempt.
The image on the screen flickered, and Omi suppressed a flinch. It had been frozen, and he hadn’t noticed that the video was still playing. “The current Weiß has the highest success rate of Kritiker’s field teams,” Persia said. “It is in the organization’s best interests to maintain its integrity.”
The video faded, and Omi glanced at the bottom of the screen to make sure it was finished. It was. He looked at his shadowy reflection in the darkened screen, the streetlights shining through the balcony door behind him creating a distorted mirror of Persia’s silhouette. “I see what you’re doing now,” he said to the false image of his uncle, coopted and altered by a man who wasn’t part of his family but had taken control of its creation. “You think if you keep me in the field, I won’t try to displace you.”
A bitter smile found its way onto Omi’s lips. If not for the brutal disruption of Weiß’ operations, he might have been content to continue taking missions until he extracted himself from the organization entirely. Being forced to negotiate for his teammates had sent him exploring the roots of Kritiker in a way he hadn’t done before, despite growing up entrenched in it, and it had shown him that he couldn’t escape. It had shown him that he didn’t want to – not when he could become something more than himself.
T he following day dawned bright and clear, and Omi opened his eyes to the blue sky beyond the shadow of the roof overhanging his balcony. Quiet breathing behind him told him that Yohji was still asleep, and Omi slipped quietly down the stairs. The scent of coffee in the kitchen greeted him, along with the sight of Aya’s back as he stood staring out at the street.
“Good morning,” Omi said, and Aya nodded without turning around.
The meeting had been set for a few minutes shy of noon, at a cafe across town that would require multiple trains to access. It was close enough to where Kritiker had held the debriefings for the currently active members of Weiß that Omi wondered whether Crawford was trying to send them another message, exactly across from the train station a single stop away from Kritiker’s location and the first point to change lines back toward Weiß’ safehouse. Omi set his misgivings aside; Kritiker and Persia were well aware of Schwarz and their capabilities, and – apparently – Omi’s negotiations.
“You ready?” Omi heard Yohji say from behind him, and he’d been holding the same mug of coffee until it cooled in his hands without seeing anything before his eyes.
“I’m not dressed,” he said quietly, and took a sip. The liquid was bitter, cold and clammy on his tongue, and Omi grimaced.
“Stick to tea, kiddo,” Yohji said, and ruffled his hair.
“I know, I just.” Omi tried again, but it wasn’t any better.
“We’ll get him back,” Yohji said. “Go put some clothes on. We’ll meet you downstairs.”
A quick shower did nothing to settle the nerves Omi hadn’t known he had, until they threatened to break out of his stomach and dance across his bones. He took a deep breath, and then another. Crawford swore up and down that Ken was healthy, but there was a hesitation in his voice that Omi hadn’t liked. No meetings had been arranged during the negotiation, to protect the potential privacy of both parties and to keep Crawford’s leverage intact.
Omi hadn’t liked it, but he’d had to accept it. He found his worries coming back now, despite the occasional photographs and snippets of video Crawford had sent to demonstrate good faith. Ken had seemed physically fine, but Omi still had doubts. He scrubbed his hair dry, and stared at his face in the mirror. What if – what if he’s angry that we didn’t come for him sooner, he thought. What if he hates us – hates me, for not trying harder to rescue him?
Yohji’s car idled in the street in front of the shop, attracting ire for blocking the lane, and Omi slid into the back seat with a gesture of apology. Yohji had insisted on driving, instead of taking the trains, because it gave greater flexibility, or so he claimed. Omi thought Yohji was almost as nervous as he was, and the car gave him a measure of security. “Took your time,” Yohji said.
“Yeah, well.” Omi stared out the window, glancing occasionally at Aya’s profile out of the corner of his eye. He couldn’t tell how Aya was feeling at all; his face was closed-off. Omi rested his forehead on the glass. He’s not going to hate you, he told himself, but he couldn’t help the thought. He hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t done enough, hadn’t looked deeply enough past Kritiker’s report that Ken had died in Colorado. He’d only discovered that Ken was alive when Crawford had deliberately pitted Schwarz against Weiß.
The drive was both endless and over far too soon. Yohji pulled into a parking space a short distance from their destination, arriving just as another vehicle left an opening. “Lucky us,” he said, and there was no further reason to delay. Omi wanted to hang back, behind his taller teammates, and let Aya take point.
“What are you waiting for?” Aya said, and Omi stepped forward. Yohji and Aya fell in behind him.
The cafe wasn’t particularly busy, for the time of day. It should have been more crowded at noon, directly across from a train station as it was, and Omi pushed the door open with a feeling of trepidation. The lights were on, shining harshly from overhead, and the interior was nearly silent. The few patrons seemed paused, frozen until Omi stepped across the threshold, and then each individual stood and filed outside. The shades dropped over the windows, and the door locked behind Omi with Aya and Yohji on the other side.
Three members of Schwarz and Ken were seated at a back table, with Ken facing away from the door. Crawford smiled and raised a ceramic mug in a sardonic toast. Omi took a deep breath and turned to face his teammates. The door was a simple deadbolt, and he deliberately unlocked it to beckon Yohji and Aya inside. “We do this as a team,” he said in a voice that would carry across the room despite its softness.
“As you wish,” Crawford said, but the door locked itself behind Weiß.
Omi crossed the room to stand at the edge of the table. He should have had a psychological advantage, looking down at Crawford, but he felt none of it as the leader of Schwarz smirked up at him with the barest corners of his mouth turned up. “Well?” he said, deliberately not looking at Ken.
“Before we return your operative to you,” Crawford started.
“Traitor,” Aya spat, and reached for a blade he wasn’t wearing. Yohji moved, and Omi wasn’t sure if he was trying to restrain Aya or support him.
“Stop!” he said sharply, and both of them froze. Schwarz hadn’t so much as twitched; Nagi’s head was bowed, and his hand was on Ken’s shoulder. Schuldig sprawled between Nagi and Crawford, arms spread out over the back of the booth, but his eyes were fixed on Ken’s face. Crawford himself had let the smirk fade, and was looking at Omi with the faintest aura of reproach for Omi’s failure to manage his team properly. “Go on,” Omi said to Crawford.
“As I was saying.” Crawford adjusted his position, tilting his head back. “Siberian has been – how do I put this.”
The explanation of how Ken’s sense of self had been locked in a box was absurd, the concept that Ken himself had been the one maintaining his dissociation even more so, and Omi let his deepening skepticism show.
“You’re going to have to trust me,” Crawford said. “You are, of course, aware that Schuldig cannot manipulate thoughts without line of sight, and that he cannot create a so-called Manchurian Candidate.”
And is that a gesture of trust or a blatant attempt to spread misinformation, or are you just trying to distract me with an attempt to figure out whether or not you’re telling the truth, Omi did not say, but the slow smile that spread across Crawford’s face told him that Crawford knew exactly what he had done with that particular sentence.
“Let’s say I take you on faith,” Omi said, and Crawford’s eyes widened slightly. He hadn’t expected Omi to take that particular tack, and Omi was reassured to know that Crawford didn’t foresee each tiny detail before it happened. “What, exactly, are you trying to say?”
“There may be some repercussions from a forcible deconstruction of Siberian’s mental defenses,” Crawford said. “For which Schwarz bears no responsibility.”
“Of course you don’t,” Yohji said. “This isn’t what we agreed on.”
“Please.” Omi held up a hand. “What kind of repercussions?”
“It’s hard to say,” Schuldig said. “The human mind is, shall we say, unpredictable.” He looked up at Omi and grinned. That’s part of what makes it so entertaining, Omi heard over the silence in his ears.
“I will thank you for staying out of my head,” Omi said, keeping his face as calm as he could over the sense of horror that Schuldig could casually waltz into his mind and back out again, and he knew Schuldig could feel the emotion.
“Just so you know,” Schuldig said. “If we’re all ready, then I’ll begin.” He reached across the small table to take one of Ken’s folded hands between both of his, and Omi finally let himself look at his missing teammate.
Ken’s face was sharper, some of the roundness of his cheeks gone, and he’d lost some of the muscle he’d had. He been staring fixedly at the table top, but when Schuldig touched him, he shook his head. “Don’t do this to me,” he said quietly. “Please.”
“We’ve negotiated for your original team to regain custody of you,” Crawford said. “You’re going home.”
“You can’t,” Ken whispered. His hand tightened convulsively in Schuldig’s grip, and Omi shuddered.
“Ken, we want you to come home,” he said, and Ken flinched hard. His eyes fell shut and his face relaxed, and Nagi made a tiny sound in his throat that Omi thought hadn’t been entirely voluntary. “We take care of our own,” Omi said to Nagi, and a mix of hatred and despair flashed across Nagi’s face for a brief moment before Nagi’s face went impressively blank.
“I’ve seen how Weiß operates,” Nagi said, and shifted his weight away from Ken.
“It’s done,” Schuldig said, and it struck Omi that he looked almost tired, eyes shadowed and face drawn. “He’s yours.”
Crawford stood smoothly, waiting while his two teammates slipped out of the booth and flanked him. “We’ll be in touch,” he said, and Schwarz made their exit.
“Ken,” Yohji said, and Omi looked back.
Ken was sprawled over the table, breathing deep and even, and wouldn’t wake no matter what Omi did.
Ken opened his eyes to sunlight on the ceiling and a familiar feeling of disorientation. He didn’t recognize the ceiling in a way that felt as if he’d been reliving it over and over. Nothing else came to him, no memories of where he might have been or what he might have been doing, not even who he had been with. He closed his eyes again, squeezing them shut as though he could find answers in the spinning darkness beneath his lids, but he couldn’t recall names or faces, nothing other than the vague memory of the scent of flowers and coffee.
Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, Ken groaned and sat up. At least I know my name, he found himself thinking, and then had to examine the thought. Why wouldn’t I know my own name.
“Why is it my turn today,” came a voice, and Ken knew the voice. A hazy picture swam to the forefront of his mind, green eyes and a smirk, shining wires splayed out around long fingers. “Yo, Ken.”
The face Ken had expected poked itself around the doorframe, followed shortly by a tall lanky body. The long, dark coat Ken had half-expected to see wasn’t there; the man was wearing low-slung pants and a gleaming half-open button-down shirt instead. Sunglasses were perched on a wavy mop of soft brown hair instead of hiding the man’s eyes. “Yohji,” Ken said, not knowing he knew the name until he said it. “Balinese,” he tried, the syllables falling out of their own accord.
“Your name is Hidaka Ken,” Yohji said, and Ken made a face.
“I know my own name,” he said.
“Better than yesterday.” Yohji crossed the room to lean against the wall in front of him, positioning himself in the corner farthest from the door and just barely not in front of the window.
“I know your name, too,” Ken felt compelled to point out.
“Omi and Aya will be thrilled,” Yohji told him. Faces associated with the names materialized, pulling some memories with them.
“We work together,” Ken said slowly.
“Way better than yesterday,” Yohji said cheerfully, and gave him a thirty-second rundown of their work history. Ken closed his eyes to listen, and grounded himself by burying his hands in the sheets. The cloth against his hands, insulating his skin from itself when he curled them into fists, helped the memories settle back into place.
“We’re not in an RV,” Ken said, when Yohji had finished talking. He was fairly sure they were in a building solidly anchored to the ground, but Yohji had finished his recitation with the phrase mobile flowershop.
“Ah, well.” Yohji grimaced. “That was last July.”
“And now is?” Ken said, somewhat sharply. The sense of being isolated surfaced, the sense of surrounded by unfamiliar custom and language, and a clear impression of being thrown into a small cell. Aya had been there, and hadn’t been there, and Ken remembered feeling emotions that weren’t his own.
“November,” Yohji said. “Twentieth,” he added, and then, “Saturday” in a helpful tone as if that did Ken any good. “You’ve been here since Monday,” he said, when Ken just stared at him.
“So I’m missing -” Ken had to stop to count on his fingers. “Four months of my life? Five?” The rest of it was settling into place, shimmery around the edges and a little insubstantial, but he thought he knew who he was, now. “No, wait.” He remembered being in America, remembered the mission that had taken them out of Japan and the infiltration work he’d done for the first – and last, if he had anything to say about it – time. I remember our two months abroad, he tried to say, but what came out was, “Omi.”
“Do you remember New York?” Yohji asked.
“I remember New York,” Ken snapped. “That bastard Morris. We were – we were made, and they took Aya, and everything went to shit. I remember that.”
“And – Omi?” Yohji hazarded, sounding very much as though he didn’t want to be asking the question.
“We, uh.” Ken wasn’t sure, suddenly, how much Omi had told anyone else. They’d tried to keep it secret, not let it interfere, but he had no idea what had been going on since the disastrous attempt to rescue Aya. A sudden thought occurred to him, dropping his stomach straight to the floor. “Is he all right?”
“Omi’s fine,” Yohji said hastily. “Aya, too. We’re all okay. Except maybe you.” He laughed, forced and nervous.
“Can I talk to him?” Ken asked, and then thought maybe that wasn’t the question he should be asking. He felt muddled, still, hyperaware of a gap between a fire on a rooftop and staring at a familiar-unfamiliar ceiling. “Where was I?”
“You’ve been here since Monday,” Yohji said again. “Do you remember any of that?”
The scent of flowers and coffee rose up again, overwhelming, against the backdrop of a flowershop with a cafe in the back. “Maybe,” Ken said cautiously.
“What about the three days in the hospital before that?” Yohji said, and Ken shook his head.
“Maybe today it’ll stick,” Yohji said, with just enough false brightness that Ken frowned at him.
“What happened to me?” he asked.
“Schuldig happened to you,” Yohji said, with the air of someone speaking before thinking, and the air rushed out of Ken’s lungs.
Green eyes filled his vision, framed with red hair, and settled above a smirk and a voice like velvet filling every corner of his mind. Close the box, Siberian, it said, and Ken shuddered. You put yourself in the box, now close it and keep it shut, if you want Weiß to stay safe. If you want Omi to stay safe.
Schuldig’s green eyes blurred into Yohji’s, red hair darkening to Yohji’s wavy brown, and nausea roiled upwards. Ken clamped a hand over his mouth until it subsided, Yohji backing up just enough to dodge if he needed to in a move Ken recognized from every time he’d seen Yohji handle a drunken mark. “I’m fine,” he mumbled. “Schuldig, he, uh. He would have. He threatened Omi. Weiß.”
“Yeah, we know.” Yohji’s lips thinned briefly. “You were with them for a while. Seven weeks. Eight, maybe. Sorry about that.”
“What would you have to be sorry about?” Ken threw aside the sheets and stood. He felt okay, he noted distantly, although he could tell he hadn’t been running enough.
“It took us a few weeks to get you back, after we knew where you were,” Yohji said. “And, uh. We didn’t know where you were, after, um. After we got Aya back.”
“Did you tell me this yesterday, and I forgot?” Ken asked, after a moment. He wasn’t sure how to respond, didn’t know what Yohji wanted or how he felt. He was empty, the memories settling at one step removed, not really feeling as if they were his even though he knew they were.
“No,” Yohji said, voice small. “You’ve been up and down, all week. Schuldig said it might happen. Said it might be a side effect of pulling you out of the box you’d put yourself in, whatever that means.”
“Maybe it’ll stick today,” Ken said back to him, with optimism he didn’t feel. What if it never – what if I’m never normal again, he thought, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to be afraid of it.
“Yeah, we’ll see tomorrow morning.” Yohji pushed himself off the wall.
“What was Schwarz even doing with me?” Ken asked. There was a closet, and he found clothes in it that didn’t look familiar. They didn’t match with anyone else’s size or taste, either.
“Those are yours,” Yohji said, and Ken frowned. “You’re good at what you do,” Yohji added. “Highly skilled and well-trained. If Schuldig could keep you on the right leash, you would have been an asset.”
“Right,” Ken muttered. He got dressed, Yohji meandering out the door around him, and followed Yohji down two sets of stairs. The scent of the cafe hit him in the face as Yohji opened the final door, swamping him in a wave of disorienting and disjointed images. He’d been here, spent hours looking after the plants and assembling floral arrangements with the hiss of espresso spiking the air around him, but it was hazy and unreal.
“Here we go again,” he heard Aya say, and that steadied him.
“Mind your own business, Fujimiya,” Ken retorted, finding his balance again. “At least I remember where the supplies are, today.”
“Then you can get started on the six orders from last night,” Aya returned smoothly and handed him a stack of paper.
“Work, work, work, that’s all I’m good for around here,” Ken said, but it was a relief to have Aya treat him with some semblance of normalcy instead of Yohji handling him delicately. He didn’t want his teammates looking at him as though he were going to break, even if he didn’t feel quite settled in his own skin. Bits and pieces of him felt as though they didn’t fit, too loose in some places and stuffed in too tightly in others. Ken shook his head, trying to dislodge the sensation, and looked up to see both Aya and Yohji giving him identical worried expressions. “The, uh,” he said. “Supply closet under the stairs, right.”
“Yeah,” Yohji said, after a long moment, and pretended like he wasn’t hovering as Ken started putting arrangements together. He didn’t say anything when Ken made himself coffee in the cafe section, during a stretch with no customers, acting as though Ken opening all the cupboards and storage drawers was perfectly normal. Aya didn’t say anything either, just moved aside to let Ken rummage as though he had something else to do.
“So where’s Omi?” Ken asked. The shop had been open for a while, getting a little traffic but not anything like the Kitten in the House, and it was nice. Ken had been able to work through three of the orders, letting Yohji deliver them, and the question of their fourth teammate had occurred to him when Yohji had stepped through the doors with a wide grin and the scent of auto exhaust clinging to his shirt.
The sound of a breaking cup brought Ken darting out around the counter – he couldn’t go over it, not with the potted tree in the way, and how had he been so stupid, to let himself get boxed in like that – but Aya wasn’t in any danger. He was picking up the pieces of a teacup, pale liquid splashed over the floor, and looking as close to sheepish as he ever got. “Sorry,” he said, and it made Ken’s skin crawl. Aya didn’t apologize.
“Oh, it’s okay,” said the customer at the table in front of Aya, and Ken hadn’t noticed her. He’d thought he’d been paying attention to his surroundings, but he was clearly still compromised.
“I’ll remake it,” Aya said to the customer, and glanced up at Ken. “Everything is fine,” he said, in what sounded like Yohji’s soothing voice, if Aya had tried to use it, which he never did. Aya didn’t do soothing, and it was making Ken feel worse, if he was out of sorts enough that Aya thought he needed calming down.
“I’m just,” he said. “Going to go upstairs.”
If there had been anything resembling normalcy, one of the two of the Weiß members present would have told Ken to get his ass back to work, but they just watched him go. Ken didn’t stop at the second floor, or the third. He remembered seeing stairs, going past the third floor, and it was the farthest away he could get without actually leaving the building.
“Sure,” he muttered to himself, halfway up the last set of stairs and moving as silently as he could; Aya and Yohji didn’t need to know where he’d stopped climbing. “Wouldn’t want to get lost.”
Except that he couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t actually get lost, and it grated. He couldn’t depend on his own memories, couldn’t take for granted that he would know what had happened today when he woke up tomorrow, and Kritiker would eventually kill him for it. Ken had seen the extra supplies in the cafe, the marked containers that weren’t technically labeled, and even if he didn’t know specifically what was in them, he knew poison when he saw it.
Would it be Aya, he thought sadly, and shook his head. Better if he didn’t see it coming; if he ran away, Kritiker would hunt him down, and he didn’t think he was in any shape to avoid them.
The door at the top of the stairs was cracked open, and Ken grimaced at the thought that it might be part of the cafe, too. He could hear voices as he approached, or at least a voice, and he frowned. As little as he wanted to be cooped up inside the parts of the apartment he’d seen, he wanted to be under a stranger’s watchful eye even less. Ken still hesitated, hand on the door, and it swung open just a little wider under his touch.
“...satisfactory conclusion,” Omi was saying, and Ken froze. He took his hand off the door carefully and backed up just enough that he wasn’t touching it before sinking into a crouch to listen. He didn’t think he’d seen Omi at all, during the week he’d been at the safehouse, but he couldn’t remember, and he hated the thought of Omi avoiding him.
“Who are you talking to?” he murmured, and then clamped his mouth shut.
“You may use whatever methods you feel are satisfactory to determine the cessation of the project in question,” Omi said. “Provided, of course, that no harm comes to Kritiker assets.”
Ken wasn’t sure whether Omi meant personnel or property, by the word asset. It could have been both, he thought, but it was a cold use of the word.
“I am aware of Rosenkreuz,” Omi said evenly, in the voice that meant he was upset about something and trying to hide it. “And the parallels. I assure you, Kritiker will not walk down that path.”
There was another pause.
“If my word is not sufficient on the matter, I fail to see how a lesson on Kritiker’s internal chain of command would be helpful,” Omi snapped, and Ken could actually hear the laugh coming from the other end of the line.
The words were too quiet, though, and Ken still had no idea who Omi’s conversational partner was.
“There is one concern remaining,” Omi said, almost delicately, and continued after a pause too brief to contain acknowledgment from the other person. “His memory.” There was another moment of silence, but Ken didn’t think the other person was talking. “His memory,” Omi said again, and there was a tremor in his voice. “Isn’t quite functional.”
Ken blinked. Omi was discussing him with someone else.
“I realize we were told about possible side effects,” Omi said, and Ken thought his voice had been sharp before. It was almost enough to make him bleed now. “But he’s like a blank slate, every morning. He doesn’t know who he is, until we remind him. He’s not retaining new memories. This wasn’t part of the agreement.”
Maybe Omi had seen him after all, and Ken just didn’t remember, he thought, and then the realization that Omi had to be talking to Schwarz rushed over him and took the heat from his bones and the air from his lungs.
“I want Schuldig to look at him again,” Omi said, as if Ken had needed a confirmation. Ken clapped a hand over his mouth before he could give himself away. “I want him to fix whatever’s wrong.”
Another pause, this one lasting an eternity and no more than a few heartbeats at the same time.
“Call it a gesture of goodwill,” Omi said, and where he had been biting, he was now cold. If Ken hadn’t already been shivering, he would have shuddered now. “After all, we have some similar objectives.”
There was a brief silence, before Ken heard Omi acknowledge late morning on the following day, as well as a location that might or might not have been the safehouse. Ken had no idea where it was, he realized. He didn’t even know what city he was in. The click of Omi ending the call barely registered, and Ken buried his face in his knees. The sound of a telephone ringing startled him, and he barely stopped himself from audibly flinching.
“Yes, I’ll hold,” Ken heard Omi say, and then, “I don’t believe a face to face meeting is necessary, no.”
Interested despite himself, Ken edged closer to the door.
“My intentions are clear,” Omi said, hard and unyielding. “I have no intention to alter the structure of Kritiker.”
Even Ken could recognize a hollow statement when he heard it, and he hadn’t realized Omi had entangled himself quite so deeply into Kritiker’s heart. Tsukiyono Omi wasn’t Takatori Mamoru, had fought hard to be his own person, but Omi wasn’t acting like himself, if he was lying about Kritiker’s leadership.
“Fewer unwanted side effects were not acceptable,” Omi said, voice still hard. “The compound in its original form was not suitable for development, and Kritiker’s methods in that direction came close to paralleling actions taken by the dark beasts Weiß was recruited to hunt.”
Ken blinked. Omi wasn’t pulling any punches.
“No further testing on Siberian, no,” Omi said, and only an idiot would have called his tone mild for all of its deceptive surface softness. “A comprehensive report on his recovery,” Omi added. “On Monday.” He managed to imbue the syllables with enough courtesy to choke the listener. “I understand.”
No pressure, Ken. Your life only depends on how well you can get your scrambled brain working in the next two days. Ken wrapped his arms around his knees, limbs feeling simultaneously like lead and desperate with the need to move.
“Weiß stands ready for deployment at Kritiker’s word, of course.” There were a few more words, sentences Ken didn’t really hear, and then silence.
Ken couldn’t bring himself to move; Omi was deciding his future without so much as talking to him, Kritiker wanted him dead and he was just supposed to let Schuldig back into his head. Nothing was right, the world had shaken itself to pieces after New York, and Ken just wanted it to go back to the way it had been before. The door swung open, and Omi stood over him.
“Ken,” Omi said. “How long have you been here?”
The question sparked the will to move, and Ken pushed himself to his feet. He wavered a little, pins and needles in his toes, and the sensation brought the chaos in his head to a point of clarity. He was angry, that Omi was making decisions on his behalf without so much as a by-your-leave. “Long enough,” he said. “Long enough that I know what you’re doing, and you don’t care, not about me, not about what I want.”
“I’m doing this for you,” Omi spit back, having the audacity to look hurt.
“You’re not doing it for me,” Ken said. “You’re doing it so that you don’t have a guilty conscience. If you were doing it for me, you would ask me before telling Schuldig to go back into my head. You would have asked me before letting Kritiker run experiments on me.”
“You were out of your mind when we got you back,” Omi retorted. “You couldn’t – you had no idea, and you couldn’t have told us what you wanted even if we’d tried to ask.”
“But you didn’t ask,” Ken said. He couldn’t be near Omi, couldn’t be near any of them. “You didn’t even try, did you. And you’re still doing it.”
“I wanted you back,” Omi said, low enough that Ken nearly couldn’t hear him from halfway down the stairs, and enough longing in his voice to stop Ken in his tracks. “I just wanted you to be okay.”
“And that’s why you’re -” Ken turned around. He couldn’t move forward, couldn’t go back. “Making deals with Schwarz, threatening Persia. That’s not like you, Omi. You put the mission first. You always have.”
“Are you really trying to tell me I don’t care about you?” Omi’s fists were clenched at his sides, eyes sparking as he stared down at Ken. His face was in shadow, backlit by the daylight from the still half-open door, but Ken could see him clearly. “Do you have any idea what I’ve done for you?”
“I didn’t ask you to!”
“Did you want me to just leave you with them?” Omi stepped forward, and Ken automatically catalogued him as a threat. He fell into a defensive position without thinking, trying to eject the claws he wasn’t wearing from gloves that weren’t on his hands. The lightness along his wrists was momentarily disorienting, and Ken shook his head to clear it. Omi was staring up at him with sad eyes, when he pulled himself back. “Is that what you think of me?” Omi asked, voice barely above a whisper.
“No, I didn’t mean -” Ken didn’t know what he meant, or what he felt. Everything was a jumbled mess. “I shouldn’t have – I didn’t – I’m sorry.”
Ken turned and pounded down the stairs, past the third floor and the second, out the private door on the first floor into the street in front of the safehouse, and took off running. He picked the direction at random – turn right, his instincts said, move away from the storefront instead of running past it – and tried to lose any potential tails at the second intersection and beyond.
The streets were intersected by alleys, small-town mazes in the center of the city, sidewalks liberally dotted with pedestrians staring at Ken with startled eyes as he ran past at full speed. He had no idea if anyone was even chasing him, or where he was going, except to get away, until someone he didn’t see threw him into a wall and he tumbled to the ground.
The sky turned dizzyingly overhead for a brief second, and Ken blinked to find himself lying on his back. He felt empty, precariously balanced as though he would slip off the edge of the earth if he so much as moved, thoughts clean and safe as long as he stayed perfectly still.
“Hidaka,” said a voice that was far too familiar and almost strange at the same time, and the sense of fragile peace shattered.
“Nagi,” Ken said, picking himself up slowly. He was exhausted, anger and sorrow drained out to be replaced with a sense of leaden heaviness radiating outward from his chest, slipping along his ribs and along the bones of his limbs. “What do you want?”
No one was there when Ken turned around, the small cul-de-sac full of vending machines he’d tripped into empty of pedestrians and customers. The brightly lit displays stung his eyes, promising satiation and satisfaction in exchange for coin, compensation for life lived according to the needs and expectations of others, each small piece of metal representing a sacrifice of time and energy. Ken slid down the wall to sit on the pavement, arms curled around his legs and forehead resting on his knees.
“Just tell me what to do,” he said, but no one was listening. He could feel it, part of him irreparably broken inside, past splinting together and taping over. It was a gaping hollow that he couldn’t see any way to fill, and for all his anger at Omi making unasked-for decisions on his behalf, there hadn’t been another alternative.
The sun had slipped below the horizon, the chill of winter sinking straight into his core, before Ken looked up at a touch on his shoulder. Omi was crouched in front of him. “Come home,” he said, but home was a lie.
Ken picked himself up anyway, shaking the stiffness out of his limbs, shivering as he realized how cold he had gotten. “Home,” he said, but his voice stalled out.
Omi’s lips thinned, but he led the way back to the safehouse. Ken followed, surprised at how close he had actually been. For all of his twisting and turning, the safehouse was only a few minutes away.
“I saw Nagi,” Ken said abruptly, just before Omi opened the door.
“He was here?” Omi was gone, replaced by Bombay, scanning their surroundings for a potential threat.
“No,” Ken said. He was freezing, lips numb from the cold, and forming words was hard. “I just saw him. He wasn’t there.”
“Okay.” Bombay didn’t relax, ushering Ken inside and glancing around before closing and locking the door behind them. “You spent a lot of time with him, while you were with them,” he said, almost conversationally.
“I don’t remember,” Ken murmured. It should have been warmer, inside, but he couldn’t feel it. The stairs stretched out above him, and he let Bombay coax him upwards.
Abyssinian and Balinese were waiting, on the second floor, and Ken curled into the corner of the sofa nearest the window. He didn’t listen to the hushed conversation on the other side of the room, instead watching their reflections grow clearer on the glass as the last remnants of dusk faded into night. The soft fabric under his fingertips felt half-real, tugging at threads of memory and awareness that might unravel if he explored them, and Ken curled his hands into loose fists.
The past months had marked him, turned him inside out, taken what was already crumbling and turning it into so much dust. He was clay, held together by blood and the insubstantial thread of memory and emotion, molded into the hollow shell of who he had been before. Ken wasn’t sure either Weiß or Kritiker should be sinking their finite coin into him, not when he didn’t think he could return their investment. I can still hunt dark beasts, he thought, and something in him was unutterably sorrowful at the thought that there was nothing else left for him.
It would be months, before Kritiker decided that Siberian was stable enough, and Weiß returned to their status as a four-man team. The mobile flowershop would be re-introduced as their base of operations, its scent sharply familiar through the dust even after eight months away, and Ken would chafe at the lack of assignments even before the safehouse was abandoned. For Kritiker to put so much time and patience into rehabilitation of an operative wasn’t quite unprecedented, in its history, but it was uncommon.
It wouldn’t help.
Thank you for coming along on this particular ride through a zombie fandom - the bones of this story were first strung together in 2003, but I didn't like the second half and didn't know how to end it, so it just. Stopped. Picking it back up a decade and a half later, it turned into this monster; it may or may not be an improvement over the original, lol
Either way, the revised story is meant to fit around canon events and help flesh out some of the character development that occurred off-screen and around the radio dramas; provide a little more back story for how events eventually played out in Gluhen, as it were. I don't know if it succeeds, but I had fun with it. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.