Ken was glad enough of a chance to cool off that he didn't object when
escort took him back to his room rather than to where he could see Ran
Omi. What the hell was Yohji thinking? He had a plan. He
Ken pushed his knuckles into his cheek, trying to use pain
to focus his mind. Damn it, Yohji--
His anger suddenly burned
out, leaving him cold. I never can stay angry at you...
hope he has a plan... He does kind of make things up as he
along, and this isn't a scenario any of us ever imagined. Will he be
to pull whatever it is off? Or will he--
"You don't seem all that happy about seeing Kudoh." The calm comment
Ken's worried thoughts.
"Crawford." Ken straightened up in his wheelchair and met
American's eyes. I'm not losing twice in one day.
urge to say anything further. Not giving you any openings this time.
Crawford waved a hand, dismissing the nurse and guards. Then he
over to Ken's chair.
Trying to intimidate me, Crawford?
Ken almost smiled. Not
He let the smile out, well aware that it had teeth. Ah, Crawford,
going to be
useful for once. Even if we do just go over the
again and again... Like you think I'll forget if you don't keep
Crawford looked down at Ken. "Do you want to stay in the chair or would
like help getting to your bed?"
"That depends. How long are you going to keep me here?" Ken tilted his
sideways so that he didn't quite look up at Crawford but could still
Crawford took hold of the handles and pushed the chair closer to the
"I thought you might want to talk about Kudoh. Fujimiya won't be
so your options are limited."
Why would Ran be unsympathetic? Apart from his usual asshole
that is. And why are you so sure of it?
Ken covered his confusion
transferring himself from the chair to the bed. He used both hands to
his injured leg up onto the mattress. "I don't expect sympathy from
He looked up at Crawford, letting his sense of the ridiculous put a
edge on his expression. "I also don't expect it from you. You're too
Ken was pleased to see Crawford's face tighten. Gotcha! Even
see that's a sore point. If you hate Ran that much, why'd you take up
his sister? Or do you hate him
because you took up with his
Crawford covered his reaction almost immediately, pulled up his chair
sat. He raised an his eyebrows for just a second and silently regarded
over steepled fingers.
I hate that. He sits there like he owns the place. Except...
Crawford's gaze without flinching. Whatever the hell you want,
not the time to push me. Right now, there's damn all
do to intimidate me, and I'm bored of talking about your plans.
stared at each other for a long moment. Ken held himself still, knowing
his apparent patience drove Crawford crazy. You think so little of
I can wait, too.
Finally, Crawford looked away. "I ordered Nagi to start... working with
Ken didn't respond immediately. Not quite fake contrition but
orders you gave, you aren't actually sorry for any of it. Except-- Has
gotten away from you?
He blinked. Why the hell can I read you
I can't understand Yohji? It's not like I know you.
Crawford shifted in his seat and narrowed his eyes with a flicker of
that might have been satisfaction. "I didn't expect... where it went,
He shrugged and made a tossing away gesture. "Kudoh was of no use to
"He's not much use to you
now, is he?" Ken wanted to bite his
Damn! I didn't mean to answer him. But did he get what he wanted out
giving Yohji to Naoe? He's not acting all that happy.
to hide his anger. "Why? I'm sure you had more reason than that."
"Nagi has become a bit more volatile recently." Ken could feel
eyes on him, probing, searching for response, for weakness. "How did
Why do you want to know? And why the hell don't you know already?
would he was in your shoes. Not that any of us would--
felt tired. I'm never going to be able to stop fighting you, am I?
He snorted. "No wonder Ran doesn't want you anywhere near his sister.
you ever stop playing people? Are you even capable of stopping?"
He didn't bother to hide his amusement as Crawford clenched his jaw,
tightening into fists. Crawford's face reddened just a little. "Am I
you, Hidaka?" The words were brittle.
Overreact much? Maybe he doesn't know how to stop... Or he wants me
think that. Has he ever trusted anybody? Poor Aya-chan...
at him. "I thought that was the whole point. Of course, the fact that
still pulling strings now that I've said yes..." He started massaging
sound leg. "I'd say you must be doing it out of habit. Either that or
get some sick pleasure out of playing with people." He looked back at
"Neither's a trait I'd like in a brother-in-law."
Crawford's smile looked forced. "Since you don't have a sister and I'm
attached, it's not really something you need to worry about."
She's my sister, too, moron.
Ken straightened up and just
not to shake his head. Well, I'm not going to enlighten him if he's
dumb. I don't want him to understand Weiss.
"What exactly do you
I should have noticed about Yohji? Or is it Naoe you're more interested
-- need Nagi to make this work. The High Lord
value, but my power doesn't give me quite as much automatic clout in
court as Nagi's does." Crawford looked away.
Am I supposed to believe he's vulnerable?
Ken stared at
unable to completely disguise his disbelief. He looks about as
Ken shook his head as his mind stalled in the search for
appropriate comparison. He's nowhere near as convincing as Omi, and
never understood how anyone can be blind enough to think
He met Crawford's eyes. Trying to see if I buy it? Well, I don't.
"And why does that matter?"
"Because I don't have the credentials to be Earth's Viceroy. Given a
more decades, yes, but not now. Without Nagi, we'll be stuck with an
probably one who'll resent listening to me."
"You're that sure that the Taisken will win?" Not that I really
it, either. They've got the resources, and they've pulled this trick
Crawford's answering glare should have made Ken cringe, but he'd become
"Do you think I'd be going to all this fucking trouble if I weren't
Crawford stood and began to pace. "Do you think this is fun
Dealing with snobs who think we're uncultured barbarians? Dealing with
who see us as potential threats to be squashed as fast as possible?
nice with you
Ken managed a cheerful smile, knowing that it would drive Crawford
crazy. "I'm having fun." Not. And he knows it.
"I'm glad someone is." Crawford didn't bother to disguise his sarcasm.
stopped pacing and looked directly at Ken. "Tell me how they looked."
Why don't you know already? Or at least pretend you do? Are you that
"Why don't you ask Naoe yourself? Or have Schuldig spy on them?" Ken
up straight. I agreed to work
with you, but I'm not going
Crawford winced slightly at the mention of the telepath. "Schuldig and
have had a... falling out. If Nagi noticed him poking around-- and Nagi
likely would notice because he's been trained to-- Nagi might well kill
And you don't answer the first question. But it sounds like Yohji
have been telling the truth about those bruises. God, I hope so. It'd
I didn't abandon him in hell.
"It sounds like you're losing
Aren't you strong enough to hold your team together?" Ken went back to
on his leg, almost turning his back on Crawford. I can almost hear
"The situation," Crawford said with surprising calmness, "is very
I know you don't care much for subtlety, but it's about the only way
going to survive."
Ken turned rapidly. He's getting too close to seeing through me.
"You're not expecting me
to survive." He used the words
whip, a sudden sharpness striking at Crawford. "That 'we' you keep
is a lie." He looked Crawford up and down. "I think I deserve more
than that." And I can't let you figure out that I
This sucks... I hate weighing each word, each gesture like this, but
not letting the team down.
"I've told you the truth." Crawford's expression remained flat.
"Bullshit." Ken didn't bother to give the word heat. He clasped his
behind his head, leaned back against his pillows and looked at the
"You've told me the pieces of the truth that you think will make me do
you want." He snorted. "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"
"Nothing in your dossier suggested you would," Crawford replied dryly.
"Just tell me the truth or get the fuck out of here. I can think of
ways of spending my time." He turned his head to glare at Crawford. "My
limited time. You want something. Tell me what it is. Tell me why. I
have time for stupid games."
Crawford looked vaguely offended. "It's not that easy."
"Yes. It. Is." Ken turned away again. Have I ever given you any
to think I don't understand what you're talking about? That I can't do
cost-benefit analysis? Hell, you depend on my doing it and being an
He listened as Crawford sighed and returned to his chair by the side of
bed. Just tell me the fucking truth and stop playing games.
"I need Nagi for... For a variety of reasons. He's asserting his
now. That's necessary and very, very dangerous. I had reasons for
him and Kudoh together, but..." Crawford fell silent for a moment.
Ken waited. You'll have to do better than that. You arranged to
His mind shied away from finishing the thought. I have to trust
He said he'd be okay, and he knows his own limits. Yeah, but he'd lie.
He had to fight not to turn and glare at Crawford. You did that,
still expect me to work with you. Well...
He kept face patiently
I probably still will. Because I
am an altruist. The only
the team. And the world really
is at stake.
"I'm juggling a hell of a lot of variables right now, and I can't
See all of them. You already know more than anyone except Aya and the
Lord." As always, Crawford's voice softened just a little when he
Aya's name. "And there are things I've told you that I haven't told
He wasn't even looking at Ken.
Ken sat bolt upright. "The High Lord knows
? Why the hell are
Crawford laughed, a dry sound almost devoid of humor. "Because he can
any candidate I put forward. Because he doesn't really think we can do
And because even if we succeed, he doesn't lose anything. Sponsoring a
High Lord gives him as much prestige as owning another planet. It's not
if Earth has a lot that he can't find elsewhere."
Ken stared at Crawford, unable to come up with anything to say.
"There's no good way to hide something like this from a powerful
Crawford's lips twitched in a minute smile. "And he didn't accept us on
word alone. Schuldig may have managed to hide something, and Farfarello
did, but Nagi and I... We could let him in, let him look at whatever he
or we could fight to keep him out and accept the permanent damage
"Is that truth enough for you, Hidaka-san?"
Ken managed to conceal the shudder prompted by the sudden ball of ice
his guts. I'm not having fun any more.
"Do you always use truth
"Only when I have to. You have to admit that it's effective. Now--"
regarded Ken over steepled fingers. "I need to know how Nagi was
Ken lifted his chin. You win. For now.
Defeat tasted bitter on
tongue. He closed his eyes, visualizing the scene in Naoe's suite. What
I tell Omi? I'd start at the beginning. My memory's stronger than my
ability to analyze.
He opened his eyes and looked straight at
"I hate you, you know. Naoe treats Yohji like a pet, a prized thing
to be fought over, and you set it up."
Crawford shrugged slightly. "I had no other use for Kudoh, and Nagi was
to snap at any moment. He's vented his frustrations now. Given the
I'm playing for, I can't afford squeamishness." He paused and seemed to
"You'd say that Nagi prizes Kudoh then? What would he do to keep him?"
Damned if I know.
Ken felt a sudden chill. Oh. Shit.
what Yohji was trying to do. He thought Naoe'd try to kill me. He
"I'd say that he's a nasty,
little shit--" Ken's hands clenched on the sheets beneath him as he
to stop the words. No. That's not how to do this.
"Nagi made quite an impression on you." Crawford sounded amused. "He
be very... intense. I thought Kudoh could focus that."
Sure you did, you American son of a bitch.
Ken glared at
for a moment. As long as it gets Naoe to do what you want, you
don't care, do you?
He felt a chill. At least, you're
"I'll have to tell it my way-- From the beginning."
Crawford nodded. He didn't say anything or indicate any impatience.
Ken leaned back against his pillows, preferring not to see the other
"The door opened, and the nurse pushed me through..."
Ran knelt on the kitchen floor, wielding a
brush with absent concentration. Omi wasn't himself. He must have
very disturbed by those tapes. First he sat for an hour. Then... He
himself. Who else would he be? But he should talk about it. I'd listen.
could do that much... If he'd let me.
He paused, stretched and
his forehead with his arm. Almost done. Well, as done as it gets.
He frowned at the room. I feel better doing it this way, anyway.
if Crawford's telling the truth and it's not necessary... I don't like
on things I can't see.
He bent, returning to his work. Another minute or two, then I need
do something else. Lots of variety, Omi said. To make looping the
easier. How is he doing that? Why won't he tell me? No. That's his
I'm not in a position to demand...
He pressed down hard on the
pulling it towards him and pushing it away. Nothing that produces
results. Wear the same clothes on a careful schedule.
At least, it gives me something to do. I'm dead weight here. Doesn't
trust me? Well, he knows I put Aya-chan first.
He went still. I
do anything for her, either. No.
Focus on Omi. He was
not acting like himself.
corner with extra force. The thing with Kudoh bothers him. He's not
at making hard decisions about his people, is he?
He shot an
glance toward Omi's room. How long is he going to lie there staring
A knock on the outer door interrupted Ran's thoughts. He dropped the
He rose to his feet. Crawford never knocks.
never knocks. I'm not expecting anybody else.
He tossed the brush
the sink and headed for the door. Though why I'm bothering--
slowed. I can't open the damn thing, after all.
He stopped a few feet from the door and leaned against the wall. He
his arms across his chest and waited. After a moment, he twitched one
Shouldn't the door be open by now?
He clenched his jaw. Omi did something so we
be interrupted. More proof that he's not himself. If he was normal,
have undone that as soon as he was back in bed. How does he do that
He glared at the door. And why won't he tell me?
He fought the
to go and demand that Omi open the door. He wouldn't thank me for
our cover. Don't the last two years mean anything? I'm not walking away
I've never quite been... part of the team, have I? That's probably
He pushed back against the wall, trying to release some
without letting the cameras pick up on it. I never wanted-- I
want-- It's better for everybody given that I have to put Aya-chan
Omi wouldn't worry over me the way he is over Kudoh.
The door remained closed. A few thumps and a metallic grinding sound
their way through the barrier. What
are they doing? Are
to cut their way in?
He curled his toes. I can't go running for
He should know already. How ever it is that he does this, he
He cleared his throat. I don't know if they can hear me, but...
you're not coming in, go away!" he said loudly.
His head snapped up as he recognized the voice. Ken!
sudden hope away. Don't call him "Ken," not in your head. That lets
in too close. Hidaka.
"They're letting me visit. Assuming they ever get the door open."
He sounds cheerful, at least.
Ran's lips curved a little even as
words told him the basic situation hadn't changed. And what's the
of this? Crawford wouldn't give it to me free.
Eventually, the door creaked open. Sparks arced from frame to door and
again, and Ran smiled grimly, relieved that he was far enough back not
need to retreat. I will not be seen to give ground.
Will it lock again? We're going to need it to. Omi's not himself, or
wouldn't have let it get to this.
Beyond the open door were two rather frazzled looking technicians. One
them smiled and said something incomprehensible to the other. The other
made a gesture Ran couldn't interpret and stepped back. Several other
probably guards judging by their demeanor, regarded Ran warily. Then,
one who seemed to be in charge waved a hand to someone behind him, said
and half turned away.
He's keeping track of me. I wonder what he said...
I hate this! That bastard promised me language lessons! I think he
seeing me crippled by ignorance, gets off on it.
He forced his
to remain relaxed. I will
not let the anger show.
A woman wearing what Ran recognized as a medical technician's uniform
Ken's wheelchair through the doorway. One of Ken's legs was splinted
propped higher than the other. He flashed Ran a cheerful grin.
That didn't reach his eyes.
Ran nodded at Ken, then addressed
woman, "You're not welcome here. Get out." He spoke flatly, not letting
Ken's lips twitched. "Your temper hasn't improved." He looked back at
woman and said something in another language.
She hesitated and seemed on the verge of protesting.
"He taught you the language!" Ran couldn't quite suppress a feeling of
The guard outside said something, and the woman turned to look at him.
opened her mouth then hesitated. She looked down at Ken and asked a
At least, I assume it's a question... And now Crawford knows it
bothers me not to know the language. Bastard. I bet he set it up and is
his ass off.
Ken shook his head and waved the woman off. "You'll have to help me
Ran. This thing's set up to be hard for me to work on my own." He gave
short laugh. "Can't you see me trying to out race them in this
Ran hesitated, recognizing the attempted joke and completely unsure how
respond. This is no time for humor, Hidaka!
The woman turned and walked out the door, and the guard shut it after
Ken turned to look over his shoulder then looked at Ran. "Well? Are you
to help me or not?"
Without really thinking about it, Ran walked over and got behind the
"What are you doing here?"
Ken's shoulders slumped a little. "Can we skip the fight, Ran? I really
feel like it right now."
Ran blinked. "What?" You make me sound petty.
He pushed them
into the living room. Never mind.
"I just want to know why
Ken laughed again, still with little humor. "Definitely the same old
Just what do you mean by that, Hidaka?
Ken put both hands on the arms of the chair and raised himself a bit.
place you got here. Where's Omi?" He lowered himself again and looked
He knows that much. Good.
"He's in one of the bedrooms." We'll
pretend to be normal.
"I can take you in to look at him." Will
Omi let him know? Should I tell him? Should I tell him about
"Would you like tea?" Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to retreat,
escape into the kitchen for a moment. No. I'm not that weak.
talk after you see him. Assuming Crawford gives us the chance." He
up at one of the corners he was sure hid a camera.
Ken followed Ran's gaze and nodded.
Good. He got that.
"Omi first, then tea," Ken responded. He seemed to hesitate. "How is
I mean... Crawford showed me medical reports, but..." He didn't quite
Crawford showed you? So you're getting cozy with him now?
his clenched jaw to relax. "He's as well as can be expected under the
No lie there.
Ran studied Ken's face. Aren't you ashamed?
turned the chair and started pushing it toward Omi's room. "I'll take
in now. You can sit with him while I make the tea." That gives Omi
to talk to you if he wants to. If he hasn't said anything by the time
tea's ready, I'll take that as him wanting to keep you out of it.
nodded with a certain degree of satisfaction, secure in the knowledge
Ken couldn't see him and would misinterpret the gesture anyway.
"I've been doing some primitive PT with him," Ran said as he pushed Ken
the door. "Just what I can remember doing with Aya-chan." I should
"If you have any suggestions--"
Ken's sudden sharp inhalation cut off Ran's words.
I guess he does look pretty bad. I hope Hidaka does have some
We need to keep Omi in shape.
"He's doing a lot better than he
Ran pushed the chair over next to the bed. "Green tea?" He hesitated. Is
anything I can say? I...
Ken looked away from Omi for a moment, seeming almost confused. "Huh?
yeah. Fine." He turned his back on Ran, leaned forward and took Omi's
Guess he doesn't need me... Neither of them do.
Ran frowned, not
liking the sense of being closed out. Doesn't matter. I don't need
He's not important.
He very deliberately turned away. Tea. As he
out of the room, he looked back. Should I make some for Omi?
Making tea calmed him. Measuring, pouring, steeping. He paused from
to time to listen. What could he be saying?
The murmur of Ken's
carried to the kitchen, but Ran couldn't quite make out the words. Doesn't
He placed the pot in the center of the tray. I'll take
The green glazed clay stood out against the black lacquered
Is he trying to justify himself? Explain why he's so damn cozy with
He ran a finger over the glazed surface, refusing to pull away as the
stabbed his fingers. When it's cooled, I can pour some down Omi's
He arranged the cups around the pot, careful to space them evenly. Some
Yes. I think so.
He glanced over at the door to Omi's room. Give
a little more time...
Ken still held Omi's hand when Ran returned. "Three cups?" He gestured
I know what you're referring to, Hidaka. The tray's the only thing
with cups. No. Calm. Don't let the irritation out.
Ran gave a small
of agreement. "He'll eat and drink if you put things to his lips. It
requires patience." He made himself ignore the small voice that
It's not just irritation, is it?
"Oh." Ken looked down at Omi. "I didn't really believe it, you know. I
Maybe I just hoped it wasn't true." He leaned forward and pushed hair
of Omi's forehead. "You better hurry up and get better, Omi." He
his throat and looked a little embarrassed. Then he let go of Omi's
and pushed his chair back a little.
Ran set the tray on the bedside table. "They did make that thing hard
maneuver." He pulled it back a little then knelt to inspect the wheels.
can fix this." Do you want that?
Ken craned his neck, trying to see. "Well..."
Why wouldn't you?
Ken cleared his throat again. When he spoke again, he talked so fast
words ran together. "IkindofhaveadealwithCrawford--"
Ran froze. "What
?" He pushed to his feet and glared down at Ken.
"I kind of have a deal with Crawford." Ken enunciated carefully this
but he spoke very softly. "If I do something simple for him, he'll let
go. At least, once Omi wakes up..." He met Ran's eyes without wavering.
almost got him to give me Yohji, too, but Naoe... Well... At least, I
to see him."
Sparks shot from five places in the walls and ceiling.
Ran blinked. I guess Omi's going to join the conversation after all.
Omi opened his eyes and sat up. "I don't know how long we'll have--"
Ken jumped and made a choking noise.
Ran allowed himself a little smile. I knew, and you didn't.
Omi swung his legs off the side of the bed. "I blew out dozens of
things all over the complex. I'm sure some of them are more important
monitoring us, but they'll send someone in soon to make sure the two of
Ken gave Omi an eager, almost hungry look. "You are
you had to be!"
Such simple faith, Hidaka. I wish...
"Have some tea." Ran handed
cup to Omi.
Omi accepted it without comment, keeping his eyes on Ken's face,
measuring his reaction.
"You blew things out? How?" Ken asked the question as if he had the
to know. He also didn't look at Ran as he accepted a cup of tea.
You can ask that, can't you?
Ran lifted his own cup and drank,
to pretend that the liquid didn't burn as it went down. Bet he'd
you anyway. He trusts
Omi didn't answer for a moment; then he sighed and said, "You didn't
Schwarz were the only one with powers, did you?" He smiled and spread
hands. "We all know that computers like me."
Ken nodded as if that made sense to him.
Ran swallowed more tea. That's more than
I could get out of
He stared at his cup. But aren't you being a little too
Omi? And Hidaka's way too accepting.
"We'll have to be quick," Omi went on. "Ken-kun, I really need to know
going on-- You said you saw Yohji. How did he seem? What did he say?"
Ken fidgeted. "He didn't really say much, actually." He ran his fingers
his hair. "Naoe was there, you see."
Ran frowned. Whatever you saw bothered you, didn't it? What was it?
have thought it'd take something as... blatant as what's on those tapes
get through to you.
Omi nodded. "That makes sense... Tell me what you saw. Details."
"We met in Naoe's suite. I only saw the front room, so I can't tell you
, Ken-kun. I don't care about the rooms."
Ran found himself raising his eyebrows. He is worried. Well, yes, I
that, but... I guess that is why he's acting so strange. Does he feel
He wouldn't worry like that over me.
"Um..." Ken blinked. "Okay... Well, when I got there, Naoe was sitting
couch. Yohji was lying there with his head in Naoe's lap. Naoe was petting
him. At least, that's what it looked like. Running fingers through his
sort of things... Yohji had his eyes closed, and he didn't look up when
came in. He was wearing... Yes, Yohji was wearing sweat pants, very
dark blue, and a matching sweatshirt, long sleeved."
Omi didn't quite bounce with impatience. "How was he? Was he hurt? Did
--" His hands clenched. "Just tell me."
Ken looked a Omi for a moment then nodded. "He was thin, very, very
I think-- Do you know about the nanites?"
"We do," Ran replied. Just so he doesn't forget I'm here, too.
tugged at the bottom of his shirt. Not that I matter. I'm not part
your team, am I, Hidaka? Did you even ask about getting
that I could...
I can't have it both ways.
"Good. That makes explaining easier." Ken forced a weak smile. "I saw
when the shirt slipped. I think someone tried to strangle him, and he
like he hurt. The bruises were faded, couldn't have been more than
a day old... Unless there were worse injuries to be healed first. He
He said that Schuldig hurt him, that Naoe-- 'Nagi-san' he called him--
Ran looked away. Another reason to kill Schuldig. I haven't
that I won't do that, either...
He let his mind wander briefly,
his katana gaining a closer acquaintance with Schuldig's body.
Omi pulled his knees up to his chest. "That's true as far as it
He sighed and made a visible effort to relax. "That situation's
very much so. I'll explain after you tell us about Yohji. Assuming we
time--" He looked toward the door.
I should pay attention. I can think about killing Schuldig any time.
Ran took a deep breath and centered his attention on the conversation
Ken turned to follow Omi's gaze. "I think we'll have time. Crawford
me to explain a few things to Ran." He glanced at Ran. "He said you
believe me but that you were sure to think he was lying."
Ran just kept himself from spitting. His lips curled in a sneer. "Are
sure he isn't?" He smoothed his expression and swallowed. Just
I don't forget he's evil--
Both Ken and Omi looked at Ran and then at each other. Ken shrugged.
a manipulative son of a bitch, and he's certainly hiding things, but...
to lie to us. There's nothing we can do--" He
and looked at Omi. "We're damned lucky, you know. His precognition's
really working right. He didn't exactly say, but I think he overdid
so that the harder he pushes the less well it works."
How can he protect Aya-chan if-- No. That's
my job, not his.
"Interesting..." Omi's eyes went vague for a second.
That fits with something else he hasn't told me, doesn't it? He's
Ran sat down. And why is Hidaka defending Crawford?
him!" He couldn't keep the accusation out of his voice. And I don't
"You're--" No. Hidaka wouldn't-- He couldn't-- He drew his
together and folded his arms across his chest. "You're working with
"No." Ken shook his head. "Or not exactly." He gave them a weak grin.
In denial, Hidaka?
"Then why do you think he'd tell you
"Actually--" Omi's expression sharpened, and he focused on Ken. "I'd
that answered, too."
"Well... Crawford thinks... He says..." Ken shook his head again. "It's
to explain." He rubbed the side of his head. "Basically, I could
like him. Sort of. There's a drug these people have that can bring out
powers and stuff if they're... Latent, that's the word. But they've got
hang up about not using it on people who don't say yes, so--" Ken
He's hiding something.
"Anyway," Ken went on, "that's how I got in to see Yohji."
"Right. Yohji. Getting back to that--" Omi leaned forward.
Ran blinked. How did he do that? He diverted
Omi. That's not
Omi's not usually that easily distracted, and Hidaka's not usually
He glared at Ken.
Both of them ignored Ran. Fine. Be that way.
He scowled and
silent while Ken described his meeting with Yohji. Against his will,
was impressed by the details Ken recalled. Of course, he has no
any of it means.
Omi's expression remained intent throughout Ken's report. Once in a
Omi interpolated a question, seeking clarification and eliciting
He's really worried about Kudoh. He's losing perspective.
and began building a picture of the scene in his head. About so far
the door to the couch... The couch where Kudoh
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. How could he? Fingers in his
stroking his back... his neck. Pressing his body against Naoe...
He swallowed heavily. This is
line of thought. And Schuldig's not even here pushing me. I'm fucking
on my own.
Kudoh's trying to survive. Why? Why would he want to after...? Is he
protecting Omi? Probably.
He clenched his hands. While I'm
nothing. Give me a target, any target.
He glanced at Omi and saw
he looked pleased. What--? Oh. Kudoh faked a fight with Hidaka.
him, too, I suppose. That means he's still Kudoh. At least, Omi
so. Hm. Hidaka's pissed. Mostly at Kudoh.
It's understandable, but... Kudoh... Kudoh doesn't really deserve
It's not his fault Hidaka couldn't rescue him.
He allowed himself a sour smile. I bet that'd have been fun to
Naoe and Hidaka fighting over Kudoh, and Hidaka having to use words,
"...and then Naoe pushed me out the door," Ken concluded. "I expected
to bring me straight here, but Crawford wanted to talk."
"Can you get back in again?" Omi leaned forward as if physical
might affect the answer.
Ken shook his head regretfully. "Not soon enough to do any good. Naoe
really want to let me in the first time, and Crawford's authority there
to be... incomplete." He darted a look at Ran.
Ran met Ken's glance with a glare. Don't compare me
not like him. I follow Omi's orders. Mostly. Usually.
looked at Omi and felt a little guilty. Well, I don't-- I have
It's not like Omi doesn't understand that I have to put my sister
Ken doesn't have the right to imply that I--
Well, he's never thought I was part of Weiss. Not really. And Omi...
"What do you mean? Is it something we can exploit?" Omi didn't exactly
rather, he subsided. He didn't seem to notice the interplay between the
You do understand, don't you? I... I really need you to.
"Well... I think it relates to some of the things I need to tell you."
started massaging his good leg. "Sorry. I keep getting cramps."
"Let me." The words were out of Ran's mouth before he realized he was
Ken looked startled, then nodded.
Ran stood and went to kneel beside the wheelchair. See? I'm not
He firmly closed his mind to the faint whisper. No,
"You were saying?" He almost regretted the abruptness of
words. Don't be silly. Hidaka understands that we don't have time
Ken cleared his throat. "This is all kind of complicated, really,
He looked at Omi and then at Ran. "You may know some of this already,
please don't ask me to skip anything. I'm having enough trouble keeping
of it all."
"Go on." Omi waved a hand. "I'm sure you'll give us everything
Ken shifted in his chair, moving his leg out from under Ran's hands. Doesn't
want a massage?
Ran sat back on his heels and looked up at Ken's
Ken gave him an apologetic shrug and moved back to his previous
No. I suppose his ass must be getting sore. That thing doesn't look
it's got much padding. How like Crawford.
Ran leaned forward again
put his hands on Ken's leg. No loss of muscle mass. That's
anyway. He won't need much PT to recover.
"Some of it I'm guessing about, the timing mostly. A couple of years
about the time we were dealing with that mess with the US military."
face tightened briefly. "Right about then, Schwarz found new employers.
had been looking for them for a while, I think, expecting them to
and Schwarz was waiting for them.
"That's something else-- These people, the Taisken they call
they don't come from Earth. They use some kind of weird technology to
between worlds. They can only find new ones kind of accidentally,
and this time, they found us." Ken shrugged. "You'll have to ask
else if you want details on how it works. I figured that it was enough
know that it does."
Ran prodded Ken's thigh, trying to locate the largest of the knots. How
. He suppressed an annoyed sigh. Knowing would help
He looked sideways at Omi. Wouldn't it?
"The Taisken Empire's huge, hundreds of planets. Except, 'empire' isn't
the word for it. There's no emperor, for one thing. It's kind of...
like lots of little empires that have rules for dealing with each
There's somebody called a 'High Lord'-- Who's sometimes a woman-- in
of each one, and each little empire has to have at least one planet,
more, but at least one."
"An oligarchy," Ran murmured. He pressed hard against Ken's leg, trying
force the muscles to relax.
Ken winced a little as Ran hit a stubborn knot. Then he pushed back
Ran's fingers, attempting to facilitate the pressure.
Omi smiled at the two of them. "Sounds like an accurate description,
Ken shrugged. "Whatever. All the High Lords are part of a big council,
they rotate members in and out of a... triumvirate. To be a High Lord
need a few things-- At least one inhabited planet, extremely powerful
and one other powerful psionic power, and sponsorship from somebody
already a High Lord. The last... Well, some High Lords just kill people
the potential, but this one-- His name's Caio, by the way. Not that you
use it-- He does sponsor because he believes in building alliances."
Omi leaned forward as Ken spoke, his expression sharpening.
Ran let his hands continue their work unsupervised while he watched
That means something to him.
Omi settled back, looking thoughtful, as Ken finished. For a moment,
wasn't sure Omi was still paying attention. Then Omi said, "I'm going
want to come back to that. Go on."
He's scheming. That's good isn't it? We need a strategy beyond
Ran pulled his hands back and risked a quick glance at Ken.
not annoyed. I really didn't mean to go that high.
Ken's thigh again. Maybe he didn't notice. I'm not sure I would
couple of weeks ago.
"Crawford says this High Lord's the best chance we've got. Earth might
him off, but that would just mean a different High Lord moving in,
more than one, and Crawford says that would be worse. More people would
They've found us now, and we can't hide. We can only try to pick which
Lord we work with."
Ran pulled his hands back as if scalded. No!
He felt his spine
as indignation moved him to some unspecified action. "You want us to surrender
Has Schuldig been messing with him? Hidaka doesn't-- He doesn't give
He looked at Omi who raised a hand as if to say, hear him out.
Ken ignored the interruption and continued serenely on, "Or try to
our own." He looked at Omi and shrugged. "But that's not easy. Crawford
he's certain that there's at least one person on Earth who'll work,
the High Lord will accept and sponsor. Crawford's Seen that much. He
can't See who that person is, where to find them." Ken paused and set
jaw, giving both of the others a brief, obstinate glare. "That's what
wants me for. He's Seen that I'll be able to See it."
For now, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but it sounds too
easy. Crawford's lying to you, Hidaka. He always does.
massage again, working near Ken's knee. He lifted Ken's leg a little
bent and straightened it at the knee.
Omi frowned and opened his mouth.
"There's another good reason for me to do this--" Ken rushed the words
before Omi could interrupt. "People with strong psionics automatically
rank in the High Lord's court. I'll outrank Crawford in that way. Ow!
He glared at Ran.
Ran unclenched his fingers. "Sorry." He couldn't manage to put much
into his tone. Not because I'm not sorry, but--
the snarl in his voice serve as his explanation. And why would
set you up to be above him? More lies.
Ken nodded. "The rank thing is complicated. The High Lord's big on
people by ability and not letting offices be hereditary, but he gives
hereditary stuff so that people don't worry about what will happen to
kids." He frowned. "I don't understand all the details... There are
service exams, merit based promotions, a lot of factors figure in, but
upshot is that Crawford and Naoe kind of stepped into the top of the
Schuldig's powerful enough to be taken seriously, but telepathy's more
and he's... undisciplined. Say that Crawford and Naoe are in the top
percent of the population while Schuldig's only in the top five or ten."
?" Ran couldn't quite stop the question.
of hundreds, thousands, millions of Schuldigs bubbled in his mind. No.
all be like him.
Ken looked at him and nodded. "Relatively." He frowned and seemed to
for words. "If I understand right, a lot of people have powers that are
latent. The Taisken know how to bring them out in a lot of different
and telepathy's the second most common. Empathy of some sort is the
At least, among humans."
"'At least, among humans,'" Omi repeated. "That implies--" He nodded
"Yes. Non-humans make sense."
He doesn't sound all that surprised. Hell,
I'm not all that
It explains some of the people I've seen.
Ken simply nodded in response. "But most powers aren't strong enough to
a lot with. I mean, they can be useful, but they're kind of... limited.
that only works if you can touch someone and isn't very strong even
Telepathy that only works with one specific other person. Telekinesis
can move a piece of paper. If you're creative, you can do something
them, maybe even a lot, but it's not enough for rank."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "That's not everything, but I think
the main points. Crawford's been throwing documentation at me, and some
it, a lot of it, is pretty crappy. I think most of it's meant for kids,
of condescending." He forced a smile. "He's got a really low opinion of
Omi jumped to his feet and started pacing. "This explains a lot." He
the end of the room and turned back. "There've been a lot of holes in
intelligence. Well, not holes so much. I had the pieces to fill the
but no frame to put them in." He kept moving as if that were an aid to
"I'm going to need to know more about how rank works, where exactly
stand, that sort of thing. It'll affect all of Weiss." He frowned.
sort of list of how they classify powers, what they think people can
Also--" He stopped and looked down at the floor.
That's odd. Not very Omi. Will he tell us? No, will he tell
bet he'll tell Hidaka. He hasn't trusted me with anything important so
Ran rubbed his hands gently up and down Ken's thigh. I've
what I can with that, but... It's nice to touch somebody... No! I'm not
weak. I don't need them, any of them. Especially not when they don't
Trying not to let his unhappiness show, Ran pulled his hands back and
"Did that help?"
Ken nodded absently, still looking at Omi. "Computers must really
like you." His tone seemed almost questioning.
Omi shrugged and started pacing again.
You still know something I don't.
Ran frowned. "You mean
by that--" He stood up and looked down at Ken. Then he glared at Omi.
me. Both of you. I think I deserve to know."
Omi froze and looked surprisingly guilty.
Ken looked from one man to the other. He opened his mouth as if to
then stopped and shook his head. His lips curved a little in an amused
Ran clenched his hands into fists. So I'm funny, am I?
rather work with him, wouldn't you?" Ran couldn't quite manage not to
at Omi, and Omi's suddenly widening eyes and hurt expression caused a
of guilt. No. I won't let him do that to me. Not this time.
isn't it? You're fucking stuck with me!" I knew you'd rather work
Kudoh, and it's obvious now you'd rather work with Hidaka. I guess I
where I stand in the scheme of things!
Ran felt cold, as if he'd
into a snowbank. He wrapped his arms around his body, trying to stop
from shaking. If you had one of them to back you up, would you
He turned away from them. I'm looking like an idiot. I need
all I have left.
"You made up your minds about me a long time ago,
you?" All I've got left.
He repeated the words silently. He
his arms more tightly around his body. I don't even have Aya-chan
There's no point...
Ran felt a sudden tug as Ken wrapped a hand in the back of his shirt
pulled, spinning Ran back to face him and then shifting grip to pull
face level with his own. "You're an asshole, Ran," Ken said with
Ran blinked. Where's his other hand?
Ken's fist slammed into Ran's jaw, and Ran staggered back as Ken let go
He landed hard. The world went red and gray for just the
moment. He pulled his goddamn punch!
Indignation gave Ran a
and helped him surge to his feet. "You're going to have to do better
that!" he snarled, throwing himself at Ken.
With one arm, Ken diverted Ran's headlong rush so that Ran's fingers
on air. Ken's other hand drove into Ran's stomach, leaving him gasping
I just lost a fight with a guy in a wheelchair.
around his wounded ego. And he wasn't really even trying.
Ran pulled himself in tighter. Here it comes...
to open his eyes and look at the other two men. They don't need me.
don't want me. I don't belong.
He was surprised at how much that
It shouldn't matter. That's how I wanted it. How I
"Ran-kun--" Omi lifted Ran to a sitting position. "You're an idiot."
He flinched and pulled away. Yes. It has.
Omi let him go, but Ran found himself feeling weak, wanting...
No, it can't.
"Leave me alone." He looked for
for detachment. It's not there any more.
"I'm sure the two of
have lots to talk about." Without me.
"I'll just go now..."
Ken snorted. "Should I hit him again?" he asked Omi.
"Do you think it would help?" Omi studied Ran with an expression that
made up of equal parts amusement, irritation and sadness.
"Stop talking about me like I'm not here!" Ran backed away from Omi,
to bring himself up on his knees. I need to get out of here.
don't you two talk and I'll..." He paused, searching for inspiration. What
can I do for them?
"I'll make you some dinner?" Even before he
speaking, even before his teammates turned nearly identical frowns on
he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Stupid. Stupid. At least
like you mean it!
"I doubt it," Ken said, answering Omi's question. "He hasn't been this
in years. How on earth did you let him get this bad, Omi?"
Omi didn't answer at first. He just looked away. "It wasn't
"He's worried about Kudoh. And about you. The real
Ran tried to put simple acceptance into his tone. That's just how
are. No matter what I want.
Omi's hands clenched into fists then slowly relaxed. "Oh, Ran-kun..."
sighed then looked at Ken in obvious appeal. "Maybe he'll believe it if
tell him. Apparently he and I aren't communicating very well."
One corner of Ken's mouth turned up in a slightly bitter smile.
I-- Ken doesn't do bitter. Or does he just hide it better than the rest
"Ran, pay attention. I don't want to say this more than once." Ken
forward and down to put his face on a level with Ran's. "You are
You always have been. It was never
your decision because we're
You're a thick headed pain in the ass, but you're ours, and we don't
our own. Ever."
"But-- Aya-chan--" Ran shook his head.
Ken sat back in his chair. "Moron." The word was somehow affectionate.
"But--" This is moving too fast. It doesn't--
"That's not how
She's-- She's my
"She's always been our sister, too, idiot. Because you're Weiss. You're
only one who didn't see it."
Ken thinks Aya-chan-- That
I'm family? But...
never trusted me! But he doesn't-- He's not-- He can't lie worth a
Ran stood up. The room felt unbalanced around him, and he
something to lean on. He looked at Omi who met his eyes and nodded
Omi thinks so, too.
Ken's expression became more serious. "She's also the only one of us
absolutely safe right now. You may hate it, but Crawford really does
"You don't-- I can't-- You don't know that." Ran backed toward the wall.
Omi walked a parallel course. "All the evidence points that way." He
the wall as Ran did and leaned against it.
Ken shrugged. "I think she loves him, too, but that doesn't really
Crawford's accepted responsibility for her well being, and that's
the High Lord takes very
seriously. She's safe."
I can't! Fuck! They're confusing me. I'm stronger than that! I
just walk out, leave, escape...
"Not-- Nobody-- Hell." I don't
want to. I should, but I-- I want-- I...
He collapsed against
wall, sliding down until he was sitting on the floor again. "I don't
"I know." Omi sounded sad.
Don't believe it. He can sound like anything. But... I want him to
telling the truth. I
need Weiss and not just... It's not about
"That's mostly my fault, Ran-kun." Omi shrugged. "I've been assuming--
fine, so I focused on other things. Of course--" Omi's
sounded a little bitter. "I should have remembered that you always look
Except when you're looking homicidal."
But I haven't been fine, and he knows that...
Ran repeated, meaning much more than he had in responding to Ken. Not
I need anything, but... If I'm part of Weiss, then why hasn't he-- I
can stand alone. I just... don't want to. Not any more. I
to... for Aya-chan. Maybe...
"Yeah, Omi--" Ken sounded amused. "It's all your fault. Everything,
with Kritiker selling us out. Crawford and the rest of Schwarz have
to do with it. Right, Ran?"
That's right, Hidaka. Protect Omi.
Ran forced a snort of
"Innocent as babies, the lot of them." I can do that, too.
Ken's eyes widened, and then he laughed. "You can't be too bad off,
if you can still make jokes."
Omi shifted his weight from one foot to another. "Why don't we sit some
other than the floor? You can't be comfortable down there."
Avoiding the issue, Omi?
Ran took a deep breath and leaned
to start climbing to his feet. Well, I've-- I've been avoiding it,
He considered that as he sat on the chair next to the bed. Definitely
He took another deep breath to center himself. The
first step is to face it. Then I'll decide...
"So, Omi, how do
you work this magic with the computer?"
Once again, Omi looked guilty. "Well, Ran-kun--"
"Let me explain, Omi," Ken interrupted. "I think I know what's going
and I'd like to see how close I am." He reached for the wheels of his
made an attempt to turn the chair to give him a better view of Ran and
then shook his head in irritation. "Would one of you--?"
"Sure, Ken-kun." Omi took hold of the back of the chair. "Exactly where
you want to be?"
"I want to be able to see both of you."
"Ken--" I don't want to wait while you come up with believable lies.
"Give me a second, Ran." As Omi turned the chair, Ken met Ran's eyes
"There. That's good." He grinned at both of them. "If we weren't having
watch out for unexpected company, I'd move up there myself. It has to
softer than this thing." He gestured at his chair.
Ran continued looking steadily at Ken. "So tell me."
"Let me know if I go too far off track, Omi." Ken leaned back in his
There's something wrong with Ken knowing everything... I want my old
back. The Koneko... Even that damned RV.
"My guess is that Omi's got his own form of psychic ability." Ken
questioningly at Omi.
"I think so." Omi shrugged. "I just do it, though. I don't really know
A brief, very unhappy frown crossed Ken's face. Then it vanished as if
had never existed.
Did I imagine that?
Ran looked from Ken to Omi. Omi wasn't
He didn't see it. If it was anything at all...
"There's a rare ability on the list of talents that the Taisken
The name translates to..." Ken frowned again, this time in
"I guess 'cyberpsi' is as close as I can get. It's a form of energy
and is usually a pretty low powered sort of thing. Usually people
got it just have a sort of talent for getting better performance out of
electronics, that sort of thing. Some of them can open any door or
any password." He looked from Omi to Ran and back again. "Sound
Ran nodded. Like Omi always was.
He frowned. When did it
I should have noticed. He should have told us.
"What changed?" He
to keep the accusation out of his voice but knew he'd failed when Omi
"Things got... weird... after Ouka-chan died."
He sounds so lost... No. It's Omi. But how would I feel if Aya-chan--
Ran shook his head, trying to dislodge the image of his sister dying in
arms. He wrapped his arms around his body. Nothing's going to
her. I'll protect her-- But I
can't. I can't.
And she doesn't want me to.
"That would do it." Ken seemed satisfied. "Trauma can activate or...
powers. Crawford keeps telling me how I should be glad they've got
Says I wouldn't like how he was taught."
"You... almost seem to like
him..." Ran almost didn't recognize
own voice. I sound weak. I can't sound weak! I can't--
Why not? Aya-chan doesn't need me. Weiss doesn't need me.
"Like him? No way." Ken sounded certain. "I understand him, though, and
can't afford to hurt me. He also doesn't trust anybody except your
and he doesn't want to worry her, so..." He gave a one armed shrug. "He
at me a lot. And I think I can work with him. He's no worse than some
the Kritiker operatives we've met."
Ran opened his mouth, intending to protest, but couldn't find the
He really loves her? And she really loves him? No, please... Why him?
"Why couldn't she get involved with someone normal?" And where do I
"If Ken-kun's right-- And I suspect he is--" Omi passed Ran his cup of
"If he is, then Crawford's capable of keeping her safe."
Ran sighed and relaxed as he sipped the tea. I can't answer that.
Weren't we talking about Omi just a minute ago? How'd he get out from
that? Like I need to ask. He's good at that. I'm so tired...
need me any more, does she?"
Omi went still for a second. "She still loves you, Ran-kun. Nothing'll
Omi's sounding weird again. Not quite like him... But he's him, so...
"She doesn't need you, Ran." Ken said, responding to the earlier
"She's safe. She's in love. Crawford's quite capable of taking care of
Ran managed a glare at Ken. I'd rather not have that shoved in my
Ken leaned forward. "But we need you." He met Ran's eyes. "I'm going to
going deep cover. You and Omi-- Well, somebody's got to back Omi up
I can't. Yohji's hurt bad, and you're a better front line fighter
There's nobody I'd rather trust to look after them." He nodded to
the point. "Can I count on you?"
Ignoring a sound of protest from Omi, Ran sat up. Should I? Can I?
He opened his mouth, not quite sure what he was going to say. "Yes.
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