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Author: Amy the Evitable
Rating: NC-17
Last updated: 25 November 2003

If you get too close to some things, you can never walk away.

Aya/Yohji. After the battle with Estet, Yohji finds himself haunted. But by what? Or by whom? Or is it all in his head? Follows the anime series, with the caveat that in this story, Aya-chan never woke up.

The OVAs, manga, and Gluhen are all gleefully ignored. The lyrics at the start of each Yohji point-of-view section are all copyright Chappell Music/U2, and are used without permission.

Thanks to The RCK, Dark Hunter, and BadMovie for beta reading!

Event Horizon
Chapter 3: Resolves and Other Best-Laid Plans

Sweet the sin
Bitter the taste in my mouth
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out
-Running to Stand Still

Ken and Omi were cooking dinner when I wandered out of the hallway into the common room. They were both polite enough not to comment on how long it had been between shutting the door to Aya's room and my emergence from the hallway. I had needed a few minutes of leaning against the wall to stop shaking. Needed a few minutes to find the patented Kudoh top-of-the-world smile I displayed for them both.

I wasn't sure I'd taken enough time, as neither face dropped the worried look in response to that smile. If I couldn't fool Ken... What the fuck was wrong with me?

Answering that question was gonna take awhile. Later. I had the earnest-and-worried twins facing me right now.

"So, did you make him stop?"

Omi frowned at Ken, not liking the phrasing of the question, probably, and jabbed an elbow into his ribs.

"Saa... Who can tell?" I shrugged. Aya had stopped with the weights, but I'd left him one seriously pissed off little swordsman. He didn't get his chance to remind us both that I'm not the only one who can drive a man out of his reason. He might pick up his workout again just to spite me.

No, that's too petty. Aya's driven and obsessive, but rarely descends to petty. That's more my game. If Aya went back to his workout now, it would be to prove to himself that he could. Or maybe to punish himself for having let me derail him. But... probably he'd stopped for the night.

"That's all you have to say? Maybe he's stopped? What the hell were you doing in there all that time, then?" Ken sputtered.

Omi turned pink again.

I honestly can't believe that even Ken could be so oblivious. It had to be a deliberate choice not to see what was under his nose. That might explain why he was so cranky -- I was making it hard for him to keep the blinders on.

"Hey, I don't pretend to be able to make fearless leader do anything he doesn't want to do." This was even true. I put my hands up, pacifying Ken, and had to visually check to make sure they aren't shaking. Everything was shaking inside so badly that I couldn't tell what was making its way out to my skin. "I got his leg rebandaged. He put down the weights. Short of drugging him, I don't know any way to make Aya stop pushing his body too far. Wouldn't hurt though, Kenken, if you gave some thought to the minimum amount of equipment you'd need to get him into a proper rehab routine. We can buy it tomorrow morning, maybe get it delivered tomorrow, too."

"A rehab routine? Here?" Ken looked around the apartment, evaluating the space. He mumbled under his breath for a few moments, descending into jargon, then looked back up. "Maybe... Do you think they'd mind if I drilled some holes in the ceiling to install some hooks?" He shook his head at his own question before I could even comment on the total indifference of the landlords. "Yeah, right, dumb question. Yeah, I can rig something up. Nothing great, but..." He gave a playful punch to Omi's shoulder. "Wouldn't hurt to come up with a program to get you back into form, Omi. And it wouldn't hurt you either, Yohji, to actually exert yourself once in a while."

"Oi! Can't have me wearing myself out at your tortures, Kenken, think of the disappointment to the ladies of Tokyo!"

Ken scowls at me briefly. "I am."

Omi chirped his contribution while working hard to make sure that the tofu he was frying didn't burn. "You don't even have to wait until tomorrow, Ken-kun. I could hook up the laptop for you again, and you could shop online."

Some people build castles in the air. Ken was starting to build himself a goddamn gymnasium. I saw it in his face. I had to derail it before he got too carried away.

"Minimum equipment, Kenken, minimum. I don't have an unlimited amount of money tucked away here. Until Manx gets back to us with an untraceable way to get to the rest of our money, it's better to be careful."

"Oh!" Ken's face fell. "Sorry, I didn't think..." He was practically counting on his fingers to total up the costs of the past week or so. "Hey, don't worry Yohji, I'll help pay you back for all this... We all will."

I couldn't keep the smile going anymore. It was all I could do not to hit him for thinking he needed to say that. "The hell you will." My voice was flat. Damn it, did he really think I was trying to guilt trip him into giving me money? In a situation like this?

I was on the receiving end of that pair of earnest-and-worried stares again, this time at double strength. Wonderful. I needed to get out of here before I... 

"Oi, Ken, we're pretty short on space, too. I am not going to sleep on top of the torture devices you call exercise equipment. I need my beauty sleep." There. That sounded more Yohji-like. I followed it up with a sensual full-body, stomach-baring stretch and the grin that says I know the display is being appreciated.

It wasn't, of course. Not by this audience. But I pretended I didn't know that, and used the blatant pose to make them look away and break off this uncomfortable scene. It worked. Ken was pointedly glaring somewhere to the side of me. Omi had focused on his highly technical stirring.

"I need a smoke. Don't hold dinner -- Aya's going to need to eat. Gotta get that energy back."

That had to have been one of my least graceful exits ever. At least I remembered my coat on my way out the door -- my lighter was still in the pocket. I took the stairs two at a time to the rooftop, and had a cigarette pulled from the pack before the stairwell door closed behind me. That timid girl from the eighth floor had hung her sheets to dry up here, and I felt a little bad about getting tobacco reek on them. But I couldn't smoke indoors with three recovering respiratory patients, after all. I didn't want to smoke on the landing or the sidewalk outside the building, visible to any passerby. Best I could do was to move downwind of the clean laundry, toward the edge of the roof and the rusted skeletal fence that stood guard there.

It was the best time of day to be looking down from a rooftop. The sun was all but down and slow shadows were rising up from the ground like a mist, only to be fought off one by one with a small flickering flare of halogen or neon.

Gaudy? Hell, yeah. But consider the light pollution of Tokyo as a million tiny acts of defiance against the vast darkness, a million tiny bravado-laden assertions of selfhood, and it has an appeal. At least from up above it does, when I'm not trying to navigate that sea of distractions.

The lighter caught, but a sudden tremor caused my thumb to slip off the grip. The flame vanished. "Shit," I hissed. Why is it that the only socially acceptable form of talking to yourself is cursing? If you walk the streets muttering to yourself, people assume you're either nuts or on your way there. Unless you're swearing. Then nothing challenges the assumption that you're sane -- pissed off, but sane.

Which led my thoughts back to Aya. There were worse directions for them. Cigarette lit, I inhaled the first hit of nicotine as eagerly as I'd inhaled the first breath of air after surfacing from the bay. It was all in my head -- nicotine hits fast, but not that fast, right? -- but as soon as that burn of smoky air hit my lungs, the jangling alarms in my body eased up.

I did not want to think about what had happened to me back there in Aya's room. It wasn't the familiar wash of panic that had hit as Aya'd been sinking his cock into my throat that I was avoiding. Not that I cared to dwell on that, either, but it was at least a known thing. It just happened sometimes, even after all these years, and I'd learned long ago how to block it out by focusing every bit of my attention on the actions I was performing. If I blocked out my awareness of myself in what I was trying to do, then I lost the awareness of the fear I was feeling. A Zen blowjob, so to speak.

One of the downsides to sex with Aya is that he always noticed when I got like that. We're people who have sex with each other, not lovers, so he doesn't try to get me to talk about it or to comfort me or any such nonsense. That kind of thing was part of what drove me away from sweet girls who were good listeners. If I wanted to talk, I'd be talking, not fucking.

For whatever reason, though, Aya doesn't seem to like it when I try to lose myself in pleasing him. He'd taken to pulling me away from my Zen blowjob. Sometimes he'd set me a new task, which was jarring, but acceptable. Sometimes he'd start working on me with his hands and mouth instead. If it was something I could talk about, I'd ask him not to do that. That makes it harder to forget I inhabit my body, as opposed to just using it.

Aya'd been unexpectedly agreeable tonight, though. He'd quit his workout with surprisingly little pushing, and he'd let me weave the seduction I wanted to give him without a struggle. We'd been gentle, almost tender. Maybe it was just that he knew he wasn't up to our usual rough-and-tumble. Whatever the reason, the encounter had left me feeling dangerously sentimental.

Aya would certainly have done something to change that mood. Orgasm had erased those tiny lines at the corners of his eyes and loosened the tightness of his lips, but I've spent enough time watching that man, watching those moods, to know him. That aimless flexing and tightening of the right hand means Aya's uncomfortable about something and looking for anything in his environment to attach that discomfort to. Then he attacks it. And when he does that, he's almost scarier without his katana since it's much more difficult to predict Aya's line of attack when he's unarmed.

But that's true of a lot of people.

Aya gave me a few bad moments there, though, before he'd knocked my hand away from his face at the end. I know he was angry, or at least as irritated as all hell. But when Aya's really intense, it's hard to tell exactly what he's feeling. There's so much passion trying to leak out through so few holes in that self-control that it's hard to tell one strong emotion from another. I'm pretty sure that what underlay his last comment, so dangerously quiet, was anger.

But I'm not entirely sure. If it wasn't anger... then I didn't want to think about what it was. Couple that with his unexpected willingness to let me play with him, and the effort he made to keep from venting his irritation at me, and I was a mess of anxious sentimentality.

Every so often I would test Aya. I'd offer him tenderness, or comfort, or something else that reeks of intimacy. Lover-like things. Every time Aya would pass with flying colors. Equally facile with fire or ice, he would shut me down.

And I would cherish the agonizing relief of knowing that he still doesn't love me.

I would know he's safe.

But like I said, this time he gave me a bad couple of moments. I know, it's a contradiction. Totally contrary of me to want Aya to accept tenderness and care while at the same time wanting him to refuse it. I never said my head was put together right.

I'd finished my cigarette. I tried not to chain-smoke, as a rule, but this was just one of those nights. I lit another and I continued to ponder the man I'd left in the downstairs bedroom.

Aya is perfect for me in so many ways. He's more than capable of taking care of himself. He's able to be cold and pragmatic, but beneath it, he shares my idealism. He's beautiful. His hands are as blood-stained as mine. He wants something that I have to offer him -- oh, he may not want to want it, but he wants it nonetheless.

And best of all, I was almost certain that he can never love me.

It's not that Aya is incapable of love. Absolutely wrong. He may try to project that image, but I know it's a lie. I couldn't love anyone who was incapable of love, and I haven't tried to deny my feelings for him in a long time.

I think he loved his parents. I know he loves his sister. He loved her before she was hurt, but now that she's all he has left -- and now that she's got nothing left anymore, not even her own awareness -- he's poured his entire soul into his adoration of her.

It must be a lot to carry, all that adoration.

It's true, he almost never speaks of her, even now that the secret is out. He hid all that -- the effort, the devotion, all the hours spent at her bedside and all the sacrifices that he made -- from us for so long. Not because he was ashamed. Not even because he thought we were a security risk. Not really. Because the emotions were so deep, so overwhelming, that they were too private. Couldn't be shown. Couldn't be shared.

Aya's love for his sister is so deep and powerful that it's like a black hole. If you get close enough to see it, you get sucked in and can never come out. All of us would sacrifice our lives for a girl we've barely caught a glimpse of. Not for her sake, but because of the love Aya bears for her. Something that pure, that powerful, can't be denied.

Maybe that's why Aya locks his emotions so far away. Maybe all his passions are so overwhelming that to glimpse any of them is to be forever entrapped. You get to the event horizon of his heart, and you can never leave.

The beauty of that overwhelming love for his sister is that it leaves no room for anyone else in Aya's heart. He simply can't let anyone in. That whole heart, all that passion, is reserved for her.

I didn't resent that -- I needed that.

I knew that not loving me was no guarantee of Aya's safety. Asuka taught me that, twice over, as if someone up there hadn't been sure I'd caught the lesson the first time.

Asuka... My eyes burned, and my stomach churned, and there was a clenching pain inside me that was fast becoming familiar.

No. I was not doing this. Not going to think about my dead partner. Not going to hear the shots in my ears. I can't stand the noise of guns firing even now. Not going to remember how her weight upon my back seemed to double as her struggles had yielded to death. Not going to think about seeing her everywhere. Not going to remember the sudden certainty that she was watching Aya and me, and the resulting tsunami of shame and terror that had made me all but flee Aya's room.

Shit. I'd crushed my cigarette between my fingers. Only half-smoked, too. I pulled out my pack of cancer sticks and went through the tiny rituals of shaking, tapping, and lighting again. Three in a row. Not good, Kudoh.

Soothed by nicotine, I forced myself to think about Aya. Focus on the people you can actually do something for, the ones still living, I told myself. Just because Aya won't get himself killed in some idiotic stunt to protect me -- because he, like her, has the goddamn sense to leave a lost cause behind and save his own ass --

No. No, no, no, no. I needed to stop thinking.

I needed a drink. More than one.

I stared out into the darkness over the fence. I'd stepped close enough that my coat caught on the rust-roughened surface, and the fence shook at the movement. I kicked the weathered metal, and it all but fell apart. Damn thing was too old and worn to offer any protection. It's an empty promise. I hope nobody ever leans on it. They'd fall straight to their deaths.

Right. Wasn't gonna continue that line of thought any further tonight. They still needed me, for tonight at least.

But tomorrow... Saa. Who could say?

I stared out, not down, this time in my search for a distraction. It was dark enough by then that the windows in the high-rise across from me provided glowing frames for the people who don't believe in curtains. God bless 'em, especially the ladies.

My attention skipped from window to window, each one a tiny piece of a priceless, irreplaceable life. I tried to take in the varied tableaux -- the woman combing out her waist-length hair, the man piling clothes into a basket, two girls doing one another's makeup, a couple arguing.

Nowhere would I ever catch a glimpse of her engaged in any of these things. No matter what lies my brain might tell me, what hallucinations might flicker into my sight, she wasn't there. She hadn't been watching me with Aya. She was gone, and I needed to stop chasing ghosts. I'd already nearly gotten us all killed chasing an Asuka who may have been as illusory as the one in the grocery store today. I'd learned already, damn it. I was not going to keep it up. No matter what I thought I saw, I was not going to chase after her.

No. Chase after it. Hallucinations were always 'it.'

I'd try at least pretending to sanity. Maybe I'd pretend well enough to fool myself. Maybe even well enough to fool Omi. Even if I didn't, I was not going to put my team at risk by chasing after phantoms where there was a real threat to be on guard against. I wasn't going to be one more thing to shadow Omi's huge eyes. I wasn't going to be the one to remind Ken yet again that even good guys can go bad.

No matter what I thought I saw, I would pretend it wasn't there.

There was a comforting feeling to having made a decision like that. An end to ambiguity. You had a rule and you didn't need to revisit and agonize over the decision a million more times. I wondered if Aya felt like that all the time? Full of that clarity.

I looked up, trying to spot stars. The moon was just the slightest sliver of a crescent, but the light pollution of Tokyo was sufficient to overwhelm most of the stars. I thought I saw one, until I realized it was moving. Had to be a plane. But there, to the southeast, was something. Maybe a planet. Maybe a star. Either way, it was remote and unmoved and indifferent to any choice I could make.

I stared up for a long time, long after I'd finished my third cigarette, until the chill moved from an interesting sensation to a shiver-inducing irritation to the inability to feel my fingertips and toes anymore. A sudden intensification of that chill, like a draft, made it clear it was past time to go in. But before I turned to go inside, I made the mistake of looking down.

Ten stories wasn't high enough to turn the pedestrians unrecognizable, and it wasn't dark enough for the dimness to do the trick, either. There are millions of women in Tokyo with that hair so black it had blue highlights, and thousands with that short, practical haircut.

No other woman in the world moved like Asuka, though. I knew her stride better than my own heartbeat. Knew the set of her shoulders and the way she'd constantly turn her head as she walked, like a little bird searching for crumbs.

A hallucination, I told myself, she's not there. Couldn't be. The faint scent that teased my nose over the lingering tobacco was all the proof I needed. She was ten stories below me, so there was no way I could be smelling the musky scent of her. Not a perfume -- there weren't any I associated with Asuka. She was what a psychiatrist might call a person with a high need for novelty. She was always buying and wearing the latest scent, and always tired of it before the bottle was even a quarter empty. I never knew what scent she'd be sporting any given morning.

No, what my deluded little nose was reporting now was the smell of her body. The scent I knew from being next to her after an all-night stakeout. The scent on her sheets when I'd first enter her bedroom. A more diluted, less salt-tinged scent than Asuka after her morning run.

I was not going to run down to the street only to find that she wasn't there yet again. I was not.

My hands were shaking again. My stomach hurt.

I was not running down ten flights of stairs just to find an empty street. I'd made a resolution. If I couldn't make myself not see her, then at least I would choose not to chase her.

I could keep that resolution, barely. But I couldn't pry my eyes away from her. She moved down the street with her confident gait, every move proclaiming to would-be predators that she was not easy prey.

It. It moved down the street.

I needed to go inside. It really did feel colder up here than it had been only moments ago. Painfully cold.

I couldn't tear myself away from the edge of the roof. But I didn't move to pursue her.

Not until the skin over my spine pricked, sending my pulse racing even faster than the nicotine had. At just that moment, she looked up. Stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked directly up at me.

Part of me wanted to vault over that fence and fall down, to shatter against the pavement at her feet.

But the part of me that won out directed my feet to the stairwell. Running, and eventually leaping, down flights of stairs. I landed badly, twisting an ankle slightly. I didn't slow down, even though each successive leap left that ankle hurting a little more. There weren't any words going through my head. I didn't have a shred of rational thought.

I had the sense to extend a hand and slam the door open before I ran into it headlong, and blew past a tall kid with a motorcycle helmet in his hands. I looked up and down the street, and caught a glimpse of a short form as she rounded a corner into an alley. I tore after her into that alley, ran through the debris of dead leaves, old newspapers, and less savory items until it opened out onto a busier thoroughfare.

While scarcely a crowd, there were more people on the street here. It took a moment of anxious searching to find her. There she was, at the end of the block. She paused and looked back at me again, before rounding another corner. I took off after her, ducking around the other pedestrians without even a murmured pardon.

I blew past a group of young toughs hanging out on the stairs. I shouldered one aside, barely registering the shouted obscenity. I hoped, in a way, that they'd come after me, make something of the incident. Make me stop this chase, because I sure as hell couldn't make myself stop.

She'd never seemed to see me any of the other times I'd seen her since I killed her.

I chased after her for more than three hours that night. I couldn't explain how she maintained that lead she had over me -- I was running, and every time I saw her, she was walking. More proof that I'm not precisely sane, I know. If I'd been chasing someone real... But every time I thought I'd lost her, every time I'd almost convinced myself that she was gone and had never been, I'd spot her again. And she'd turn and look at me. And again I'd be off.

Until now. I'd slipped on a pile of wet leaves in an alley, and the ankle I'd hurt in my frantic rush down the stairs gave way. I was on my knees in an empty alley in one of the poorest sections of Tokyo, my abused lungs demanding great noisy gasps of oxygen.

I might as well have put a big sign on my back reading "Mug me, please." But no one bothered me. Maybe even muggers get a little nervous about mugging blatantly crazy people.

Damn, but it was cold, and now the knees of my jeans were soaking wet. I tried to push myself up off the ground, had almost made it to my feet when my leg shook a little too hard, putting too much strain on the ankle and I was down again. I slammed my fist against the cold concrete. I didn't even feel it connect, just felt the shock of impact traveling up my arm to my shoulder.

I slammed that hand into the ground again and again. I had to let it out somehow, or my chest really would explode from what surged inside of me. I kept it up until my arm was exhausted, until everything was drowned out. Eventually I registered that the hand was bleeding, that despite the cold my little finger and the area beneath it were beginning to bruise and swell. Shit. I flopped forward, almost hitting my forehead against the ground, vaguely thankful that I finally felt drained and almost hollow. It hurt so much less.

She'd stopped and looked at me. Saw me. I think she'd wanted me to follow her. It was hard to call to mind the details of her expression each time I glimpsed her on the streets -- now that I tried, what flashed before me was something like a mosaic make made up of a thousand moods on her face. I couldn't quite pin down which one I'd seen time after time tonight.

I sat up a little, wrapped my arms around my body. Not to fend off the chill -- between the wet jeans and the rapidly-cooling sweat, it was a lost cause -- but because I was almost afraid I would shake myself into pieces. My stomach was twisting as if I'd been riding a roller coaster for the last three hours.

Can we say incipient ulcer, boys and girls?

God. I'd decided I wasn't going to chase after her any more. I really wasn't. But she saw me. She'd wanted me to follow her. If she hadn't wanted me to follow her, she wouldn't have waited for me. Right? And if she wanted me to follow her, how could I deny her?

Easily enough, came the answer from somewhere inside the back of my head. I'd denied her just fine that night in Schreient's laboratory. Denied her the chance to take the revenge on me she had craved so badly. Denied her the chance to love another man when I'd sunk my wire into the tender skin of her neck, denied her the air she needed so badly, denied her life itself.

Cold and weary, I wanted to cry, but my eyes were so dry they burned. I didn't deserve the tears. Didn't deserve any release.

I promised her once that I'd never hurt her. I promised her that I'd never let anyone hurt her ever again. When she would come to me in the dark those nights, strung tight with memory and need, to straddle me, to take me inside her and lose herself in sensation, I'd told her to take what she needed. That I'd always be willing to give her what she needed.

Lies and broken promises, all of it. After such a betrayal, after so many failures, there was little she could ask of me that I wouldn't give her. She wanted me to spend the night chasing after her? Easy enough. There was only one thing I would hold back -- Weiss.

I'd tried so hard to avoid making promises, even implied promises to Omi, Ken, and Aya, but I didn't have it in me to live with these men, to fight with these men, for all this time without those implied promises. In a fight, each of them trusted me with his life and the lives of the others. When our lives weren't on the line, I'd reminded them at every turn that I couldn't be relied upon. I was late to work, played up my role as a heavy drinker and a womanizer. Lazy. Irritating. That damn Yohji, good on a mission but nowhere else.

I'd really tried. But I couldn't bear to see the sight of Omi's carefully nurtured bubbly enthusiasm crumpling in disappointment, and I'd gotten in the habit of cheering him. I couldn't bear to watch Ken struggle with his quick temper, trying to hold it all in until he exploded, so I'd offered myself as a safe target, provoking small explosions that he knew would safely roll off my back. I couldn't bear to watch Aya slice off every part of his soul that didn't serve his self-imposed mission, and I'd done my best to draw out from him the capacity for desire, for pleasure, before he lost it entirely.

At that thought, an echo of that overwhelming feeling of transgression I'd felt on Aya's futon rolled through me. That horrible guilt and shame as his teeth took hold of my throat in that fierce, careful way that caught the essence of the man in one gesture. On the cusp of losing myself beneath him, the certainty that Asuka was watching us, jealous, hurt, and coldly furious, had slammed into me with almost shattering force.

I couldn't bear that feeling again. I needed to stay out of Aya's bed. It was better for both of us. Aya did not need to be fucking a crazy man; he'd had too much shit in his life already for me to put him through that.

At least he didn't love me. At least I wasn't going to break his heart.

Shit. I'd gone and made the same mistake, let them all rely on me as she had. I'd etched 'When you gonna learn?' on my body even before I'd met Asuka. I was praying now that I'd learned something. Praying I wouldn't fail them as badly as I had failed her. If I couldn't keep the simple resolve not to chase after my phantoms...

I'm not Aya. I just don't have that kind of will. If there was something Asuka still wanted from me, if I had a chance to make sure I hadn't failed her utterly in every way, I had to try. I had to chase her through the night if that was what she wanted. I knew it, knew absolutely that she wasn't there. That I was hallucinating her, probably because of this damn need to do something, anything for her. But it didn't matter. If there was the slightest chance that she wanted me to follow, I'd follow.

Now there was no sign of her at all. I'd lost her again. There was nothing I could do for her. The taste of failure filled my mouth, and I needed to replace it with a slightly more palatable flavor.

I had to focus to light my cigarette. The motions -- settling the cancer stick between my fingers, the flick of the lighter, tilting my hand so the flame kept away from my thumb -- were more familiar to me than jacking off. I smoke a hell of a lot more than I come, no matter what Ken may think. But it was like I was trying to manipulate someone else's hands to light my cigarette. I had to rely on watching numb fingers that hardly felt like they were mine.

I watched the end of the cigarette glow red, and wondered absently if I would feel anything at all if I pressed that ember against my hands. Maybe if I managed to make my hands hurt, they'd belong to me again.

Not that it mattered one way or the other.

Everybody's Kudou Yohji, I call myself. It's an irony that no one else could appreciate. The amazing chameleon of a man, able to be whatever the ladies need me to be. Protector, comforter, seducer. Able to sell flowers with a single grin. I also slice and dice.

To hell with it. I know the truth.

She's gone. Really gone. And since she's gone, since I killed her, I'm nobody's Kudou Yohji. That's the way it needs to be.

It was a long, cold walk home.

It was all going as he'd planned. As he'd foreseen. Let the infighting for control of Estet weaken the organization further still, then offer the support of his team to the faction of his choice in return for immunity from reprisals. And after that... He smiled.
Brad Crawford tilted the mug in his hand, wondering if the coffee had become too cold to be palatable. His desktop lamp glinted off the black ripples on the surface of the liquid...

He walked down the hallway without bothering to turn the lights on. The thick carpeting he preferred -- craved, even, after too much time these past years spent on tatami mats and other hard surfaces -- muffled his footsteps without the need for effort. He'd walked past the door when the strangled whimper caught his attention.

He turned, and grasped the knob. Schuldig could bitch all he liked about privacy, but he knew the man was an exhibitionist. If ensuring the safety of his team required the occasional glimpse of Schuldig pleasuring himself, then he could live with that cost. Compared to the games that Estet's other telepaths were capable of, catching sight of Schuldig's hands around his dick was only negligibly unpleasant. Better safe than finding his telepath a shattered vegetable in the morning.

Besides, all the man had to do to prevent these little midnight tete-a-tetes was to be silent for once. Crawford wondered sometimes if these little games weren't some strange attempt at seduction. Perhaps soon he'd take Schuldig up on the offers again. He opened the door.

The lights were glaringly bright, silhouetting the naked body that knelt on the floor. Schuldig's arms were wrapped around himself, and as Crawford watched, the telepath dug his nails deeply into his arms and dragged them slowly down, scoring bloody trails as they went.

There was another sound, this one wordless and despairing. Not a cry for help, just overwhelming horror forcing a way out of Schuldig's mouth. The moan slid into a keen, which went on and on, until Crawford was amazed Schuldig hadn't stopped to draw a breath.

Crawford strode forward, ready to wrench Schuldig's arms away, to stop the self-mutilation. As his eyes adjusted to the bright lights, he saw multiple trails of blood along Schuldig's arms, chest, even down his face. Tears mingled with the blood on Schuldig's cheeks.

Schuldig finally gasped for breath, ending the keen. It was replaced by a low chant of "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..."

Crawford took hold of Schuldig's wrists, yanking them away...

Crawford stood in a white-tiled room, facing the bank of silver drawers. He had not expected to find this task as unpleasant as it was proving to be. He pulled the appropriate one out, and it slid smoothly despite the weight, revealing a sheet-covered corpse. One hand fell from the slab, dangling down. Blood that was no longer driven into motion had pooled at the low points of the arm, leaving the top of the hand chalky and the bottom luridly bruised, but the skin was golden. The palm and fingers were marked by many thin, long scars. Crawford reached out, pulling the sheet away to reveal a recognizable fall of sun-streaked brown hair...

The wind was icy on the rooftop where Crawford stood, colder than mere February chill. Nagi was beside him, sweat dripping from his forehead, face contorted in effort. While he understood the sentiment, Crawford knew it was too late. He'd had warning. He'd just failed. Nagi, too, would fail in a moment, and Crawford had seen too many times what would happen next. He didn't want to see it again, but it would be the act of a coward to look away now.

Farfarello lay motionless a few feet away from where Schuldig stood, shirt open, with a familiar knife in his hands. Slowly, as if struggling against great resistance, Schuldig drove the knife into his own abdomen and started to slice. Nagi cried out in defeat...

Wait, Crawford thought. How had he gotten on the rooftop from the morgue? And there was something about a hallway...

Crawford stood beneath a shrine gate in the darkness, the pistol still hot in his hand from the shots he'd fired. There was a giggling from above him, a little-girl sound filled with mockery. Fury burned through him.

Forcing a distance between the images and his thoughts, Crawford realized something was wrong. Techniques he'd culled from the literature on lucid dreaming revealed the telltale signs that no matter what his perceptions indicated, they could not be trusted. He tried to string his memories into a coherent narrative: Schuldig's room in the safehouse. A morgue. A rooftop. A Shinto shrine. He couldn't remember why he'd been to any of these places. The last thing he was certain he remembered was sitting in his study...

A vision. Crawford clung to the awareness that his perceptions were clearly awry, that cause and effect were warped, that time was out of joint. He was in a series of visions. This was not real. Not yet...

Skin flashed before his eyes. A pale expanse of chest with scattered red curls, improbably bright. In equally brilliant color was the circle of an ouroborous, the serpent devouring itself, surrounding a self-chosen moniker in black gothic script, all etched beneath the skin. Crawford had always found the design pretentious. Dark lips pressed against Schuldig's tattoo, and began to suckle...

Darker skin, honey-colored, and a word formed of nails. "Sin." Wings bracketing an inverted cross. Another tattoo. Familiar from somewhere...

A black liquid surface trembled before his eyes. Crawford blinked, and set his coffee cup on the desk.

It seemed that not everything was going according to plan after all.

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