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Disclaimer: Weiss and Schwarz do not belong to me. I'm borrowing them for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: Yaoi. Swearing. References to past child sexual abuse. Nonconsensual sex. Bondage. Although I'm setting this a couple of years past the main series, Nagi's age combined with his actions may squick some people. Also, I'm ignoring Gluhen and the drama CDs, so don't expect this to be consistent with them.

Rating: NC-17

Pairings: Nagi x Yohji. References to Crawford x Aya-chan.

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 6 March 2004

Thanks to Amy the Evitable, Hope of Dawn and Tritorella for beta reading, suggestions and general support.


rhe-o-tax-is: the tendency of an organism to move in response to the stimulus of a current of water, either with the current or against it

Part 12

Ken was glad enough of a chance to cool off that he didn't object when his escort took him back to his room rather than to where he could see Ran and Omi. What the hell was Yohji thinking? He had a plan. He had to have a plan. Ken pushed his knuckles into his cheek, trying to use pain to focus his mind. Damn it, Yohji-- His anger suddenly burned itself out, leaving him cold. I never can stay angry at you... He sighed. I hope he has a plan... He does kind of make things up as he goes along, and this isn't a scenario any of us ever imagined. Will he be able to pull whatever it is off? Or will he--

"You don't seem all that happy about seeing Kudoh." The calm comment interrupted Ken's worried thoughts.

Shit. "Crawford." Ken straightened up in his wheelchair and met the American's eyes. I'm not losing twice in one day. He suppressed his urge to say anything further. Not giving you any openings this time.

Crawford waved a hand, dismissing the nurse and guards. Then he strolled over to Ken's chair.

Trying to intimidate me, Crawford? Ken almost smiled. Not today. He let the smile out, well aware that it had teeth. Ah, Crawford, you're going to be useful for once. Even if we do just go over the same ground again and again... Like you think I'll forget if you don't keep reminding me.

Crawford looked down at Ken. "Do you want to stay in the chair or would you like help getting to your bed?"

"That depends. How long are you going to keep me here?" Ken tilted his head sideways so that he didn't quite look up at Crawford but could still see his face.

Crawford took hold of the handles and pushed the chair closer to the bed. "I thought you might want to talk about Kudoh. Fujimiya won't be sympathetic, so your options are limited."

Why would Ran be unsympathetic? Apart from his usual asshole behavior, that is. And why are you so sure of it? Ken covered his confusion by transferring himself from the chair to the bed. He used both hands to shift his injured leg up onto the mattress. "I don't expect sympathy from Ran." He looked up at Crawford, letting his sense of the ridiculous put a vicious edge on his expression. "I also don't expect it from you. You're too much alike."

Ken was pleased to see Crawford's face tighten. Gotcha! Even I can see that's a sore point. If you hate Ran that much, why'd you take up with his sister? Or do you hate him because you took up with his sister?

Crawford covered his reaction almost immediately, pulled up his chair and sat. He raised an his eyebrows for just a second and silently regarded Ken over steepled fingers.

I hate that. He sits there like he owns the place. Except... Ken met Crawford's gaze without flinching. Whatever the hell you want, Crawford, this is not the time to push me. Right now, there's damn all you can do to intimidate me, and I'm bored of talking about your plans. They stared at each other for a long moment. Ken held himself still, knowing that his apparent patience drove Crawford crazy. You think so little of me. I can wait, too.

Finally, Crawford looked away. "I ordered Nagi to start... working with Kudoh, you know."

Ken didn't respond immediately. Not quite fake contrition but close. Whatever orders you gave, you aren't actually sorry for any of it. Except-- Has it gotten away from you? He blinked. Why the hell can I read you when 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 something that might have been satisfaction. "I didn't expect... where it went, but..." He shrugged and made a tossing away gesture. "Kudoh was of no use to me."

"He's not much use to you now, is he?" Ken wanted to bite his tongue. Damn! I didn't mean to answer him. But did he get what he wanted out of giving Yohji to Naoe? He's not acting all that happy. He stopped trying 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 Crawford's eyes on him, probing, searching for response, for weakness. "How did Kudoh look?"

Why do you want to know? And why the hell don't you know already? Omi would he was in your shoes. Not that any of us would-- Suddenly, Ken 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. Do you ever stop playing people? Are you even capable of stopping?"

He didn't bother to hide his amusement as Crawford clenched his jaw, hands tightening into fists. Crawford's face reddened just a little. "Am I playing you, Hidaka?" The words were brittle.

Overreact much? Maybe he doesn't know how to stop... Or he wants me to think that. Has he ever trusted anybody? Poor Aya-chan... Ken stared at him. "I thought that was the whole point. Of course, the fact that you're still pulling strings now that I've said yes..." He started massaging his sound leg. "I'd say you must be doing it out of habit. Either that or you get some sick pleasure out of playing with people." He looked back at Crawford. "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 already... attached, it's not really something you need to worry about."

She's my sister, too, moron. Ken straightened up and just managed not to shake his head. Well, I'm not going to enlighten him if he's that dumb. I don't want him to understand Weiss. "What exactly do you think I should have noticed about Yohji? Or is it Naoe you're more interested in?"

"I-- We-- need Nagi to make this work. The High Lord understands my value, but my power doesn't give me quite as much automatic clout in his court as Nagi's does." Crawford looked away.

Am I supposed to believe he's vulnerable? Ken stared at Crawford, unable to completely disguise his disbelief. He looks about as vulnerable as-- as-- Ken shook his head as his mind stalled in the search for an appropriate comparison. He's nowhere near as convincing as Omi, and I've never understood how anyone can be blind enough to think he's harmless. 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 couple more decades, yes, but not now. Without Nagi, we'll be stuck with an alien, probably one who'll resent listening to me."

"You're that sure that the Taisken will win?" Not that I really doubt it, either. They've got the resources, and they've pulled this trick before. Many times.

Crawford's answering glare should have made Ken cringe, but he'd become impervious. "Do you think I'd be going to all this fucking trouble if I weren't sure?" Crawford stood and began to pace. "Do you think this is fun, Hidaka? Dealing with snobs who think we're uncultured barbarians? Dealing with aristocrats who see us as potential threats to be squashed as fast as possible? Playing nice with you?"

Ken managed a cheerful smile, knowing that it would drive Crawford utterly crazy. "I'm having fun." Not. And he knows it.

"I'm glad someone is." Crawford didn't bother to disguise his sarcasm. He 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 off-balance? "Why don't you ask Naoe yourself? Or have Schuldig spy on them?" Ken sat up straight. I agreed to work with you, but I'm not going to work for you.

Crawford winced slightly at the mention of the telepath. "Schuldig and Nagi have had a... falling out. If Nagi noticed him poking around-- and Nagi most likely would notice because he's been trained to-- Nagi might well kill him."

And you don't answer the first question. But it sounds like Yohji might have been telling the truth about those bruises. God, I hope so. It'd mean I didn't abandon him in hell. "It sounds like you're losing control... Aren't you strong enough to hold your team together?" Ken went back to working on his leg, almost turning his back on Crawford. I can almost hear his teeth grinding.

"The situation," Crawford said with surprising calmness, "is very complicated. I know you don't care much for subtlety, but it's about the only way we're going to survive."

Ken turned rapidly. He's getting too close to seeing through me. Attack-- "You're not expecting me to survive." He used the words like a whip, a sudden sharpness striking at Crawford. "That 'we' you keep using is a lie." He looked Crawford up and down. "I think I deserve more respect than that." And I can't let you figure out that I can be subtle. This sucks... I hate weighing each word, each gesture like this, but I'm 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 hands behind his head, leaned back against his pillows and looked at the ceiling. "You've told me the pieces of the truth that you think will make me do what 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 better ways of spending my time." He turned his head to glare at Crawford. "My very limited time. You want something. Tell me what it is. Tell me why. I don't 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 reason to think I don't understand what you're talking about? That I can't do a cost-benefit analysis? Hell, you depend on my doing it and being an altruist. He listened as Crawford sighed and returned to his chair by the side of the bed. Just tell me the fucking truth and stop playing games.

"I need Nagi for... For a variety of reasons. He's asserting his independence now. That's necessary and very, very dangerous. I had reasons for throwing him and Kudoh together, but..." Crawford fell silent for a moment.

Ken waited. You'll have to do better than that. You arranged to have Yohji-- His mind shied away from finishing the thought. I have to trust Yohji. 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, and you still expect me to work with you. Well... He kept face patiently blank. I probably still will. Because I am an altruist. The only one on 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 always See all of them. You already know more than anyone except Aya and the High Lord." As always, Crawford's voice softened just a little when he mentioned Aya's name. "And there are things I've told you that I haven't told her." He wasn't even looking at Ken.

Ken sat bolt upright. "The High Lord knows? Why the hell are you still alive?"

Crawford laughed, a dry sound almost devoid of humor. "Because he can veto any candidate I put forward. Because he doesn't really think we can do it. And because even if we succeed, he doesn't lose anything. Sponsoring a new High Lord gives him as much prestige as owning another planet. It's not as 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 telepath." Crawford's lips twitched in a minute smile. "And he didn't accept us on our word alone. Schuldig may have managed to hide something, and Farfarello certainly did, but Nagi and I... We could let him in, let him look at whatever he wanted, or we could fight to keep him out and accept the permanent damage losing would inflict.

"Is that truth enough for you, Hidaka-san?"

Ken managed to conceal the shudder prompted by the sudden ball of ice in his guts. I'm not having fun any more. "Do you always use truth like a weapon?"

"Only when I have to. You have to admit that it's effective. Now--" Crawford regarded Ken over steepled fingers. "I need to know how Nagi was acting. Tell me."

Ken lifted his chin. You win. For now. Defeat tasted bitter on his tongue. He closed his eyes, visualizing the scene in Naoe's suite. What would 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 Crawford. "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 liable to snap at any moment. He's vented his frustrations now. Given the stakes I'm playing for, I can't afford squeamishness." He paused and seemed to consider. "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. That's what Yohji was trying to do. He thought Naoe'd try to kill me. He was trying to protect me. "I'd say that he's a nasty, possessive, little shit--" Ken's hands clenched on the sheets beneath him as he fought to stop the words. No. That's not how to do this.

"Nagi made quite an impression on you." Crawford sounded amused. "He can be very... intense. I thought Kudoh could focus that."

Sure you did, you American son of a bitch. Ken glared at Crawford for a moment. As long as it gets Naoe to do what you want, you really don't care, do you? He felt a chill. At least, you're consistent. "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 man. "The door opened, and the nurse pushed me through..."

Ran knelt on the kitchen floor, wielding a scrub brush with absent concentration. Omi wasn't himself. He must have been very disturbed by those tapes. First he sat for an hour. Then... He wasn't himself. Who else would he be? But he should talk about it. I'd listen. I could do that much... If he'd let me. He paused, stretched and rubbed 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. Even if Crawford's telling the truth and it's not necessary... I don't like relying on things I can't see.

He bent, returning to his work. Another minute or two, then I need to do something else. Lots of variety, Omi said. To make looping the surveillance easier. How is he doing that? Why won't he tell me? No. That's his choice. I'm not in a position to demand... He pressed down hard on the brush, pulling it towards him and pushing it away. Nothing that produces tangible results. Wear the same clothes on a careful schedule.

At least, it gives me something to do. I'm dead weight here. Doesn't Omi trust me? Well, he knows I put Aya-chan first. He went still. I can't do anything for her, either. No.

Focus on Omi. He was not acting like himself. He attacked a corner with extra force. The thing with Kudoh bothers him. He's not good at making hard decisions about his people, is he? He shot an irritated glance toward Omi's room. How long is he going to lie there staring at the ceiling?

A knock on the outer door interrupted Ran's thoughts. He dropped the brush. Who's that? He rose to his feet. Crawford never knocks. Schuldig never knocks. I'm not expecting anybody else. He tossed the brush into the sink and headed for the door. Though why I'm bothering-- His steps slowed. I can't open the damn thing, after all.

He stopped a few feet from the door and leaned against the wall. He folded his arms across his chest and waited. After a moment, he twitched one shoulder. Shouldn't the door be open by now?

Of course. He clenched his jaw. Omi did something so we wouldn't be interrupted. More proof that he's not himself. If he was normal, he'd have undone that as soon as he was back in bed. How does he do that anyway? He glared at the door. And why won't he tell me? He fought the urge to go and demand that Omi open the door. He wouldn't thank me for breaking our cover. Don't the last two years mean anything? I'm not walking away again.

Unless Aya-chan--

I've never quite been... part of the team, have I? That's probably it. I... No. He pushed back against the wall, trying to release some tension without letting the cameras pick up on it. I never wanted-- I don't want-- It's better for everybody given that I have to put Aya-chan first.

Omi wouldn't worry over me the way he is over Kudoh.

The door remained closed. A few thumps and a metallic grinding sound made their way through the barrier. What are they doing? Are they going to cut their way in? He curled his toes. I can't go running for Omi. He should know already. How ever it is that he does this, he should know.

He cleared his throat. I don't know if they can hear me, but... "If you're not coming in, go away!" he said loudly.


His head snapped up as he recognized the voice. Ken! He pushed his sudden hope away. Don't call him "Ken," not in your head. That lets him 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 Ken's words told him the basic situation hadn't changed. And what's the price of this? Crawford wouldn't give it to me free.

Eventually, the door creaked open. Sparks arced from frame to door and back again, and Ran smiled grimly, relieved that he was far enough back not to need to retreat. I will not be seen to give ground. Then he frowned. Will it lock again? We're going to need it to. Omi's not himself, or he wouldn't have let it get to this.

Beyond the open door were two rather frazzled looking technicians. One of them smiled and said something incomprehensible to the other. The other frowned, made a gesture Ran couldn't interpret and stepped back. Several other people, probably guards judging by their demeanor, regarded Ran warily. Then, the one who seemed to be in charge waved a hand to someone behind him, said something and half turned away.

He's keeping track of me. I wonder what he said... Ran's frown deepened. I hate this! That bastard promised me language lessons! I think he likes seeing me crippled by ignorance, gets off on it. He forced his hands to remain relaxed. I will not let the anger show.

A woman wearing what Ran recognized as a medical technician's uniform pushed Ken's wheelchair through the doorway. One of Ken's legs was splinted and propped higher than the other. He flashed Ran a cheerful grin.

That didn't reach his eyes. Ran nodded at Ken, then addressed the woman, "You're not welcome here. Get out." He spoke flatly, not letting his expression change.

Ken's lips twitched. "Your temper hasn't improved." He looked back at the 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 betrayal.

The guard outside said something, and the woman turned to look at him. She opened her mouth then hesitated. She looked down at Ken and asked a soft question.

At least, I assume it's a question... And now Crawford knows it really bothers me not to know the language. Bastard. I bet he set it up and is laughing his ass off.

Ken shook his head and waved the woman off. "You'll have to help me out, Ran. This thing's set up to be hard for me to work on my own." He gave a short laugh. "Can't you see me trying to out race them in this?"

Ran hesitated, recognizing the attempted joke and completely unsure how to respond. This is no time for humor, Hidaka!

The woman turned and walked out the door, and the guard shut it after her. Ken turned to look over his shoulder then looked at Ran. "Well? Are you going to help me or not?"

Without really thinking about it, Ran walked over and got behind the wheelchair. "What are you doing here?"

Ken's shoulders slumped a little. "Can we skip the fight, Ran? I really don't feel like it right now."

Ran blinked. "What?" You make me sound petty. He pushed them forward into the living room. Never mind. "I just want to know why you're here."

Ken laughed again, still with little humor. "Definitely the same old Fujimiya Ran."

Just what do you mean by that, Hidaka?

Ken put both hands on the arms of the chair and raised himself a bit. "Nice place you got here. Where's Omi?" He lowered himself again and looked up at Ran.

He knows that much. Good. "He's in one of the bedrooms." We'll just 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 Kudoh? "Would you like tea?" Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to retreat, to escape into the kitchen for a moment. No. I'm not that weak. "We can talk after you see him. Assuming Crawford gives us the chance." He glanced 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 he? I mean... Crawford showed me medical reports, but..." He didn't quite meet Ran's eyes.

Crawford showed you? So you're getting cozy with him now? Ran forced his clenched jaw to relax. "He's as well as can be expected under the circumstances." No lie there. Ran studied Ken's face. Aren't you ashamed? He turned the chair and started pushing it toward Omi's room. "I'll take you in now. You can sit with him while I make the tea." That gives Omi time to talk to you if he wants to. If he hasn't said anything by the time the tea's ready, I'll take that as him wanting to keep you out of it. He nodded with a certain degree of satisfaction, secure in the knowledge that 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 through the door. "Just what I can remember doing with Aya-chan." I should say something else. "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 suggestions. We need to keep Omi in shape. "He's doing a lot better than he was." Ran pushed the chair over next to the bed. "Green tea?" He hesitated. Is there anything I can say? I...

Ken looked away from Omi for a moment, seeming almost confused. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Fine." He turned his back on Ran, leaned forward and took Omi's hand.

Guess he doesn't need me... Neither of them do. Ran frowned, not really liking the sense of being closed out. Doesn't matter. I don't need him. He's not important. He very deliberately turned away. Tea. As he walked out of the room, he looked back. Should I make some for Omi?

Making tea calmed him. Measuring, pouring, steeping. He paused from time to time to listen. What could he be saying? The murmur of Ken's voice carried to the kitchen, but Ran couldn't quite make out the words. Doesn't matter. He placed the pot in the center of the tray. I'll take three cups. The green glazed clay stood out against the black lacquered surface. Is he trying to justify himself? Explain why he's so damn cozy with Crawford... He ran a finger over the glazed surface, refusing to pull away as the heat stabbed his fingers. When it's cooled, I can pour some down Omi's throat. He arranged the cups around the pot, careful to space them evenly. Some fruit? Yes. I think so. He glanced over at the door to Omi's room. Give them a little more time...

Ken still held Omi's hand when Ran returned. "Three cups?" He gestured toward the tray.

I know what you're referring to, Hidaka. The tray's the only thing around with cups. No. Calm. Don't let the irritation out. Ran gave a small noise of agreement. "He'll eat and drink if you put things to his lips. It just requires patience." He made himself ignore the small voice that whispered, It's not just irritation, is it?

"Oh." Ken looked down at Omi. "I didn't really believe it, you know. I guess... Maybe I just hoped it wasn't true." He leaned forward and pushed hair off of Omi's forehead. "You better hurry up and get better, Omi." He cleared his throat and looked a little embarrassed. Then he let go of Omi's hand and pushed his chair back a little.

Ran set the tray on the bedside table. "They did make that thing hard to maneuver." He pulled it back a little then knelt to inspect the wheels. "I 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 the 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 time, but he spoke very softly. "If I do something simple for him, he'll let Omi go. At least, once Omi wakes up..." He met Ran's eyes without wavering. "I almost got him to give me Yohji, too, but Naoe... Well... At least, I got to see him."

Sparks shot from five places in the walls and ceiling.

Ken flinched.

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 different things all over the complex. I'm sure some of them are more important than monitoring us, but they'll send someone in soon to make sure the two of you aren't scheming."

Ken gave Omi an eager, almost hungry look. "You are awake! I knew you had to be!"

Such simple faith, Hidaka. I wish... "Have some tea." Ran handed a cup to Omi.

Omi accepted it without comment, keeping his eyes on Ken's face, probably measuring his reaction.

"You blew things out? How?" Ken asked the question as if he had the right 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, trying to pretend that the liquid didn't burn as it went down. Bet he'd tell you anyway. He trusts you.

Omi didn't answer for a moment; then he sighed and said, "You didn't think Schwarz were the only one with powers, did you?" He smiled and spread his 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 him. He stared at his cup. But aren't you being a little too disingenuous, Omi? And Hidaka's way too accepting.

"We'll have to be quick," Omi went on. "Ken-kun, I really need to know what's 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 through his hair. "Naoe was there, you see."

Ran frowned. Whatever you saw bothered you, didn't it? What was it? I'd have thought it'd take something as... blatant as what's on those tapes to 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 much about that."

"About Yohji, Ken-kun. I don't care about the rooms."

Ran found himself raising his eyebrows. He is worried. Well, yes, I knew that, but... I guess that is why he's acting so strange. Does he feel guilty? He wouldn't worry like that over me.

"Um..." Ken blinked. "Okay... Well, when I got there, Naoe was sitting on 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 hair sort of things... Yohji had his eyes closed, and he didn't look up when I came in. He was wearing... Yes, Yohji was wearing sweat pants, very loose, dark blue, and a matching sweatshirt, long sleeved."

Omi didn't quite bounce with impatience. "How was he? Was he hurt? Did Naoe-- Nagi--" His hands clenched. "Just tell me."

Ken looked a Omi for a moment then nodded. "He was thin, very, very thin. I think-- Do you know about the nanites?"

"We do," Ran replied. Just so he doesn't forget I'm here, too. He tugged at the bottom of his shirt. Not that I matter. I'm not part of your team, am I, Hidaka? Did you even ask about getting me out? Not that I could...

I can't have it both ways.

"Good. That makes explaining easier." Ken forced a weak smile. "I saw bruises when the shirt slipped. I think someone tried to strangle him, and he moved like he hurt. The bruises were faded, couldn't have been more than about a day old... Unless there were worse injuries to be healed first. He said-- He said that Schuldig hurt him, that Naoe-- 'Nagi-san' he called him-- had rescued him."

Ran looked away. Another reason to kill Schuldig. I haven't promised anybody that I won't do that, either... He let his mind wander briefly, imagining 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 goes..." He sighed and made a visible effort to relax. "That situation's complicated, very much so. I'll explain after you tell us about Yohji. Assuming we have 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 again.

Ken turned to follow Omi's gaze. "I think we'll have time. Crawford wanted me to explain a few things to Ran." He glanced at Ran. "He said you might 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 you sure he isn't?" He smoothed his expression and swallowed. Just because I don't forget he's evil--

Both Ken and Omi looked at Ran and then at each other. Ken shrugged. "He's a manipulative son of a bitch, and he's certainly hiding things, but... He doesn't have to lie to us. There's nothing we can do--" He stopped and looked at Omi. "We're damned lucky, you know. His precognition's not really working right. He didn't exactly say, but I think he overdid things 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 scheming. Ran sat down. And why is Hidaka defending Crawford? "You trust him!" He couldn't keep the accusation out of his voice. And I don't want to. "You're--" No. Hidaka wouldn't-- He couldn't-- He drew his eyebrows together and folded his arms across his chest. "You're working with him, aren't you?"

"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 the truth?"

"Actually--" Omi's expression sharpened, and he focused on Ken. "I'd like that answered, too."

About time.

"Well... Crawford thinks... He says..." Ken shook his head again. "It's hard to explain." He rubbed the side of his head. "Basically, I could become... like him. Sort of. There's a drug these people have that can bring out psychic powers and stuff if they're... Latent, that's the word. But they've got a hang up about not using it on people who don't say yes, so--" Ken shrugged.

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 normal. Omi's not usually that easily distracted, and Hidaka's not usually that... manipulative. He glared at Ken.

Both of them ignored Ran. Fine. Be that way. He scowled and remained silent while Ken described his meeting with Yohji. Against his will, Ran was impressed by the details Ken recalled. Of course, he has no idea what any of it means.

Omi's expression remained intent throughout Ken's report. Once in a while, Omi interpolated a question, seeking clarification and eliciting further details.

He's really worried about Kudoh. He's losing perspective. Ran sighed and began building a picture of the scene in his head. About so far from the door to the couch... The couch where Kudoh cuddled with Naoe. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. How could he? Fingers in his hair... stroking his back... his neck. Pressing his body against Naoe... Kissing... Surrendering... He swallowed heavily. This is not a productive line of thought. And Schuldig's not even here pushing me. I'm fucking up on my own.

Kudoh's trying to survive. Why? Why would he want to after...? Is he still protecting Omi? Probably. He clenched his hands. While I'm accomplishing nothing. Give me a target, any target. He glanced at Omi and saw that he looked pleased. What--? Oh. Kudoh faked a fight with Hidaka. Protecting him, too, I suppose. That means he's still Kudoh. At least, Omi thinks so. Hm. Hidaka's pissed. Mostly at Kudoh.

It's understandable, but... Kudoh... Kudoh doesn't really deserve that. It's not his fault Hidaka couldn't rescue him.

He allowed himself a sour smile. I bet that'd have been fun to watch. Naoe and Hidaka fighting over Kudoh, and Hidaka having to use words, effectively unarmed.

"...and then Naoe pushed me out the door," Ken concluded. "I expected them to bring me straight here, but Crawford wanted to talk."

"Can you get back in again?" Omi leaned forward as if physical intensity might affect the answer.

Ken shook his head regretfully. "Not soon enough to do any good. Naoe didn't really want to let me in the first time, and Crawford's authority there seems to be... incomplete." He darted a look at Ran.

What? Ran met Ken's glance with a glare. Don't compare me and Naoe. I am not like him. I follow Omi's orders. Mostly. Usually. He looked at Omi and felt a little guilty. Well, I don't-- I have priorities. It's not like Omi doesn't understand that I have to put my sister first. 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 relax; rather, he subsided. He didn't seem to notice the interplay between the other two men.

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." Ken 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 going to speak.

Ken looked startled, then nodded.

Ran stood and went to kneel beside the wheelchair. See? I'm not completely useless. He firmly closed his mind to the faint whisper. No, just mostly... "You were saying?" He almost regretted the abruptness of his words. Don't be silly. Hidaka understands that we don't have time to waste.

Ken cleared his throat. "This is all kind of complicated, really, but..." He looked at Omi and then at Ran. "You may know some of this already, but please don't ask me to skip anything. I'm having enough trouble keeping track of it all."

"Go on." Omi waved a hand. "I'm sure you'll give us everything important."

Ken shifted in his chair, moving his leg out from under Ran's hands. Doesn't he want a massage? Ran sat back on his heels and looked up at Ken's face. Ken gave him an apologetic shrug and moved back to his previous position. No. I suppose his ass must be getting sore. That thing doesn't look like it's got much padding. How like Crawford. Ran leaned forward again and put his hands on Ken's leg. No loss of muscle mass. That's something, anyway. He won't need much PT to recover.

"Some of it I'm guessing about, the timing mostly. A couple of years ago, about the time we were dealing with that mess with the US military." Ken's face tightened briefly. "Right about then, Schwarz found new employers. Crawford had been looking for them for a while, I think, expecting them to arrive, and Schwarz was waiting for them.

"That's something else-- These people, the Taisken they call themselves, they don't come from Earth. They use some kind of weird technology to gate between worlds. They can only find new ones kind of accidentally, though, and this time, they found us." Ken shrugged. "You'll have to ask somebody else if you want details on how it works. I figured that it was enough to know that it does."

Omi nodded.

Ran prodded Ken's thigh, trying to locate the largest of the knots. How like you, Hidaka. He suppressed an annoyed sigh. Knowing would help a lot. He looked sideways at Omi. Wouldn't it?

"The Taisken Empire's huge, hundreds of planets. Except, 'empire' isn't really the word for it. There's no emperor, for one thing. It's kind of... It's like lots of little empires that have rules for dealing with each other. There's somebody called a 'High Lord'-- Who's sometimes a woman-- in charge of each one, and each little empire has to have at least one planet, sometimes more, but at least one."

"An oligarchy," Ran murmured. He pressed hard against Ken's leg, trying to force the muscles to relax.

Ken winced a little as Ran hit a stubborn knot. Then he pushed back against Ran's fingers, attempting to facilitate the pressure.

Omi smiled at the two of them. "Sounds like an accurate description, Ran-kun."

Ken shrugged. "Whatever. All the High Lords are part of a big council, and they rotate members in and out of a... triumvirate. To be a High Lord you need a few things-- At least one inhabited planet, extremely powerful telepathy and one other powerful psionic power, and sponsorship from somebody who's already a High Lord. The last... Well, some High Lords just kill people with the potential, but this one-- His name's Caio, by the way. Not that you should 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 Omi. That means something to him.

Omi settled back, looking thoughtful, as Ken finished. For a moment, Ran wasn't sure Omi was still paying attention. Then Omi said, "I'm going to want to come back to that. Go on."

He's scheming. That's good isn't it? We need a strategy beyond escaping. Oops... Ran pulled his hands back and risked a quick glance at Ken. He's not annoyed. I really didn't mean to go that high. He started kneading Ken's thigh again. Maybe he didn't notice. I'm not sure I would have a couple of weeks ago.

"Crawford says this High Lord's the best chance we've got. Earth might fight him off, but that would just mean a different High Lord moving in, probably more than one, and Crawford says that would be worse. More people would die. They've found us now, and we can't hide. We can only try to pick which High Lord we work with."

Ran pulled his hands back as if scalded. No! He felt his spine straighten 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 up. 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 field our own." He looked at Omi and shrugged. "But that's not easy. Crawford says he's certain that there's at least one person on Earth who'll work, that the High Lord will accept and sponsor. Crawford's Seen that much. He just can't See who that person is, where to find them." Ken paused and set his jaw, giving both of the others a brief, obstinate glare. "That's what he 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 damn easy. Crawford's lying to you, Hidaka. He always does. Ran started the massage again, working near Ken's knee. He lifted Ken's leg a little and 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 out before Omi could interrupt. "People with strong psionics automatically have rank in the High Lord's court. I'll outrank Crawford in that way. Ow! Hey--" He glared at Ran.

Ran unclenched his fingers. "Sorry." He couldn't manage to put much sincerity into his tone. Not because I'm not sorry, but-- "Crawford." He let the snarl in his voice serve as his explanation. And why would Crawford set you up to be above him? More lies.

Ken nodded. "The rank thing is complicated. The High Lord's big on ranking people by ability and not letting offices be hereditary, but he gives some hereditary stuff so that people don't worry about what will happen to their kids." He frowned. "I don't understand all the details... There are civil service exams, merit based promotions, a lot of factors figure in, but the upshot is that Crawford and Naoe kind of stepped into the top of the aristocracy. Schuldig's powerful enough to be taken seriously, but telepathy's more common, and he's... undisciplined. Say that Crawford and Naoe are in the top one percent of the population while Schuldig's only in the top five or ten."

"Telepathy's common?" Ran couldn't quite stop the question. Visions of hundreds, thousands, millions of Schuldigs bubbled in his mind. No. They can't all be like him.

Ken looked at him and nodded. "Relatively." He frowned and seemed to search for words. "If I understand right, a lot of people have powers that are just latent. The Taisken know how to bring them out in a lot of different ways, and telepathy's the second most common. Empathy of some sort is the first. At least, among humans."

"'At least, among humans,'" Omi repeated. "That implies--" He nodded abruptly. "Yes. Non-humans make sense."

He doesn't sound all that surprised. Hell, I'm not all that surprised. It explains some of the people I've seen.

Ken simply nodded in response. "But most powers aren't strong enough to do a lot with. I mean, they can be useful, but they're kind of... limited. Empathy that only works if you can touch someone and isn't very strong even then. Telepathy that only works with one specific other person. Telekinesis that can move a piece of paper. If you're creative, you can do something with 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 it's the main points. Crawford's been throwing documentation at me, and some of it, a lot of it, is pretty crappy. I think most of it's meant for kids, kind of condescending." He forced a smile. "He's got a really low opinion of my intelligence."

Omi jumped to his feet and started pacing. "This explains a lot." He reached the end of the room and turned back. "There've been a lot of holes in our intelligence. Well, not holes so much. I had the pieces to fill the holes but no frame to put them in." He kept moving as if that were an aid to thought. "I'm going to need to know more about how rank works, where exactly you'll stand, that sort of thing. It'll affect all of Weiss." He frowned. "Some sort of list of how they classify powers, what they think people can do... Also--" He stopped and looked down at the floor.

That's odd. Not very Omi. Will he tell us? No, will he tell me? I bet he'll tell Hidaka. He hasn't trusted me with anything important so far. Ran rubbed his hands gently up and down Ken's thigh. I've done what I can with that, but... It's nice to touch somebody... No! I'm not that weak. I don't need them, any of them. Especially not when they don't want me.

Trying not to let his unhappiness show, Ran pulled his hands back and sighed. "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 something by that--" He stood up and looked down at Ken. Then he glared at Omi. "Tell 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 speak, then stopped and shook his head. His lips curved a little in an amused smile.

Ran clenched his hands into fists. So I'm funny, am I? "You'd really rather work with him, wouldn't you?" Ran couldn't quite manage not to snarl at Omi, and Omi's suddenly widening eyes and hurt expression caused a pang of guilt. No. I won't let him do that to me. Not this time. "Too bad, isn't it? You're fucking stuck with me!" I knew you'd rather work with Kudoh, and it's obvious now you'd rather work with Hidaka. I guess I know where I stand in the scheme of things! Ran felt cold, as if he'd dived into a snowbank. He wrapped his arms around his body, trying to stop himself from shaking. If you had one of them to back you up, would you still be sitting here?

He turned away from them. I'm looking like an idiot. I need dignity. It's all I have left. "You made up your minds about me a long time ago, didn't you?" All I've got left. He repeated the words silently. He pulled his arms more tightly around his body. I don't even have Aya-chan anymore. There's no point...

Ran felt a sudden tug as Ken wrapped a hand in the back of his shirt and pulled, spinning Ran back to face him and then shifting grip to pull Ran's face level with his own. "You're an asshole, Ran," Ken said with affectionate irritation.

Ran blinked. Where's his other hand?

Ken's fist slammed into Ran's jaw, and Ran staggered back as Ken let go of his shirt.

Oh. He landed hard. The world went red and gray for just the briefest moment. He pulled his goddamn punch! Indignation gave Ran a focus and helped him surge to his feet. "You're going to have to do better than that!" he snarled, throwing himself at Ken.

With one arm, Ken diverted Ran's headlong rush so that Ran's fingers closed on air. Ken's other hand drove into Ran's stomach, leaving him gasping for air.

I just lost a fight with a guy in a wheelchair. Ran curled himself around his wounded ego. And he wasn't really even trying.

Omi laughed.

Ran pulled himself in tighter. Here it comes... He forced himself to open his eyes and look at the other two men. They don't need me. They don't want me. I don't belong. He was surprised at how much that hurt. It shouldn't matter. That's how I wanted it. How I want it. Nothing's changed.

"Ran-kun--" Omi lifted Ran to a sitting position. "You're an idiot."

Nothing's changed. He flinched and pulled away. Yes. It has. Omi let him go, but Ran found himself feeling weak, wanting... something. No, it can't. I can't. "Leave me alone." He looked for ice, for detachment. It's not there any more. "I'm sure the two of you 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 seemed made up of equal parts amusement, irritation and sadness.

"Stop talking about me like I'm not here!" Ran backed away from Omi, shifting to bring himself up on his knees. I need to get out of here. "Why 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 finished speaking, even before his teammates turned nearly identical frowns on him, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Stupid. Stupid. At least sound like you mean it!

"I doubt it," Ken said, answering Omi's question. "He hasn't been this bad 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 intentional."

"He's worried about Kudoh. And about you. The real members of Weiss." Ran tried to put simple acceptance into his tone. That's just how things are. No matter what I want.

Omi's hands clenched into fists then slowly relaxed. "Oh, Ran-kun..." He sighed then looked at Ken in obvious appeal. "Maybe he'll believe it if you 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 of us?

"Ran, pay attention. I don't want to say this more than once." Ken leaned forward and down to put his face on a level with Ran's. "You are Weiss. You always have been. It was never your decision because we're family. You're a thick headed pain in the ass, but you're ours, and we don't abandon our own. Ever."

"But-- Aya-chan--" Ran shook his head.

Ken sat back in his chair. "Moron." The word was somehow affectionate. "She's family, too."

"But--" This is moving too fast. It doesn't-- "That's not how it works! She's-- She's my sister!"

"She's always been our sister, too, idiot. Because you're Weiss. You're the only one who didn't see it."

Wait. Ken thinks Aya-chan-- That I'm family? But... He's never trusted me! But he doesn't-- He's not-- He can't lie worth a damn, and-- Ran stood up. The room felt unbalanced around him, and he wanted something to lean on. He looked at Omi who met his eyes and nodded solemnly. Omi thinks so, too.

Ken's expression became more serious. "She's also the only one of us who's absolutely safe right now. You may hate it, but Crawford really does love her."

"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 reached the wall as Ran did and leaned against it.

Ken shrugged. "I think she loves him, too, but that doesn't really matter. Crawford's accepted responsibility for her well being, and that's something the High Lord takes very seriously. She's safe."

I can't! Fuck! They're confusing me. I'm stronger than that! I should just walk out, leave, escape... "Not-- Nobody-- Hell." I don't want to. I should, but I-- I want-- I... He collapsed against the wall, sliding down until he was sitting on the floor again. "I don't understand," he whispered.

"I know." Omi sounded sad.

Don't believe it. He can sound like anything. But... I want him to be telling the truth. I need Weiss and not just... It's not about Aya-chan any more.

"That's mostly my fault, Ran-kun." Omi shrugged. "I've been assuming-- You looked fine, so I focused on other things. Of course--" Omi's laugh sounded a little bitter. "I should have remembered that you always look fine. Except when you're looking homicidal."

But I haven't been fine, and he knows that... "I don't understand," Ran repeated, meaning much more than he had in responding to Ken. Not that 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 always had to... for Aya-chan. Maybe...

But Aya-chan...

"Yeah, Omi--" Ken sounded amused. "It's all your fault. Everything, starting with Kritiker selling us out. Crawford and the rest of Schwarz have nothing to do with it. Right, Ran?"

That's right, Hidaka. Protect Omi. Ran forced a snort of laughter. "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, Ran, if you can still make jokes."

Omi shifted his weight from one foot to another. "Why don't we sit some place other than the floor? You can't be comfortable down there."

Avoiding the issue, Omi? Ran took a deep breath and leaned forward to start climbing to his feet. Well, I've-- I've been avoiding it, too. He considered that as he sat on the chair next to the bed. Definitely more comfortable. 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 on, and I'd like to see how close I am." He reached for the wheels of his chair, made an attempt to turn the chair to give him a better view of Ran and Omi, then shook his head in irritation. "Would one of you--?"

"Sure, Ken-kun." Omi took hold of the back of the chair. "Exactly where do you want to be?"

"I want to be able to see both of you."

Omi nodded.

"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 briefly. "There. That's good." He grinned at both of them. "If we weren't having to watch out for unexpected company, I'd move up there myself. It has to be 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 seat.

There's something wrong with Ken knowing everything... I want my old world back. The Koneko... Even that damned RV.

"My guess is that Omi's got his own form of psychic ability." Ken looked questioningly at Omi.

"I think so." Omi shrugged. "I just do it, though. I don't really know how it works."

A brief, very unhappy frown crossed Ken's face. Then it vanished as if it had never existed.

Did I imagine that? Ran looked from Ken to Omi. Omi wasn't looking. He didn't see it. If it was anything at all...

"There's a rare ability on the list of talents that the Taisken acknowledge. The name translates to..." Ken frowned again, this time in consideration. "I guess 'cyberpsi' is as close as I can get. It's a form of energy manipulation and is usually a pretty low powered sort of thing. Usually people who've got it just have a sort of talent for getting better performance out of computers, electronics, that sort of thing. Some of them can open any door or break any password." He looked from Omi to Ran and back again. "Sound familiar?"

Ran nodded. Like Omi always was. He frowned. When did it change? I should have noticed. He should have told us. "What changed?" He tried to keep the accusation out of his voice but knew he'd failed when Omi turned away.

"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 his arms. He wrapped his arms around his body. Nothing's going to happen 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... enhance powers. Crawford keeps telling me how I should be glad they've got drugs. Says I wouldn't like how he was taught."

"You... almost seem to like him..." Ran almost didn't recognize his 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 he can't afford to hurt me. He also doesn't trust anybody except your sister, and he doesn't want to worry her, so..." He gave a one armed shrug. "He talks at me a lot. And I think I can work with him. He's no worse than some of the Kritiker operatives we've met."

Ran opened his mouth, intending to protest, but couldn't find the words. 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 fit in that?

"If Ken-kun's right-- And I suspect he is--" Omi passed Ran his cup of tea. "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. Wait-- Weren't we talking about Omi just a minute ago? How'd he get out from under that? Like I need to ask. He's good at that. I'm so tired... "She doesn't need me any more, does she?"

Omi went still for a second. "She still loves you, Ran-kun. Nothing'll make her stop."

Omi's sounding weird again. Not quite like him... But he's him, so... "I know that."

"She doesn't need you, Ran." Ken said, responding to the earlier question. "She's safe. She's in love. Crawford's quite capable of taking care of her."

Ran managed a glare at Ken. I'd rather not have that shoved in my face.

Ken leaned forward. "But we need you." He met Ran's eyes. "I'm going to be going deep cover. You and Omi-- Well, somebody's got to back Omi up when I can't. Yohji's hurt bad, and you're a better front line fighter anyway. There's nobody I'd rather trust to look after them." He nodded to emphasize 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. Yes, you can."

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