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On to Part 17.

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
Website: http://www.therck.org
Last updated: 4 February 2006 (Typos corrected 4 March 2006)

Thanks to Amy the Evitable and Hope of Dawn for beta reading, suggestions and general support. Thanks to Rebecca for pointing out some major typos.

Rheotaxis

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 16

Ken had to admit that, generally speaking, Taisken medical care beat the hell out of what he'd experienced on Earth. His post-op experience proved no exception. They got him back into familiar surrounding almost immediately and took only a few seconds to bring him down out of the floaty space he'd been in for the surgery.

And all without letting me feel what they did to the leg. These are good drugs. No grogginess. No chill. Just enough ache so I know the leg's still there and can call the nurse if something feels wrong. He took a bite of tempura. And the food's even good. Especially with the batter making the vegetables look normal. His good mood evaporated. I hate eating things I can't identify. He scowled at his tray. Would it hurt them to give me real food? I mean Earth food. Bet that bastard, Crawford, has Earth food. Whatever he wants.

He started up one of his taped games but found himself unable to concentrate. Omi's taking a hell of a chance with Aya-chan. And he didn't have to. Not at all. He poked at his vegetables. Ran wouldn't insist on staying with her. Would he? He hates Crawford's guts. He sighed. But it's Ran. And his sister. Ran's never been rational about her. But what if she can't hide it from Crawford? What if she doesn't want to? She doesn't give a rat's ass about any of us but her brother. He realized he'd missed something when the taped crowd cheered, so he rewound the tape. The fourth time that happened, he gave up and went back to an old game, one he could follow without thinking. A classic, so to speak. He gave the screen half his attention as he called up his workstation from the bedside table. I'm getting used to this, aren't I? Ran and Omi's apartment looked kind of weird yesterday. Not weird. Primitive. Not as bad as the damned wheelchair but still.

And it's not really Aya-chan I'm worried about. Omi can deal with her. I mean, it was my deal that she took, but Omi's the boss. No. I'm thinking about something else. What was it? Right. That damned cyberpsi stuff. There's something I ought to remember about it. At least, I can look that up. He moved his fingers rapidly, bringing up information on various types of psionics.

Forty-five minutes later, he had enough answers to be terrified. He went through the motions, pretending to read, trying to cover up what he'd actually been interested in. He'd started with empathy, thinking that that made sense as something he'd want to know more about. After reading that section, he concluded that Yohji probably always had been an empath, just not enough of one to be obvious. And now I know what happened last night. Kind of. Projective empathy. Poor Yohji. Then he'd poked around, looking at a random selection of other powers before finally calling up the section on cyberpsi.

It's a wonder Omi's still conscious. Maybe whatever got the others won't get him. It hasn't yet, and he's Omi. He can do it if anybody can. He stared blankly at the workstation then transferred his gaze to the game still running on the TV. I've got to stop him. No. He's okay so far. Ken massaged his forehead with his fingertips. How is what he's doing different from what I'm doing? Well, I know the risks. He doesn't. He looked at his workstation again and brought up an explanation of clairaudience that he didn't plan to read. But even if he knew, he'd do it anyway, at least till they're out. What choice does he have? But... He needs to know so he stops when they're out, doesn't do whatever the hell it is that's killed all the other strong cyberpsis. But if he has doubts-- Can't do shit with this stuff once you lose confidence. And with no other strong cyberpsis, it's not like he can be trained, just blocked. And getting him blocked or trained would tell Crawford that he's awake. Fuck.

"Hidaka-san--"

Ken was startled to hear a woman addressing him with the Japanese form of his name. He looked up. For a moment, he wasn't sure who the formally attired, self-assured woman in the doorway could be. Aya-chan. She looks different with her hair like that, up instead of braided, and those are grownup clothes. Yohji'd consider her fair game. Well, apart from being Ran's sister and all. He made himself smile. What does she want now?

She stood in the doorway, one foot just over the threshold. She gave him a very slight bow, barely more than an inclination of her head.

Are we using Japanese or Taisken? She's dressed Taisken-- Nobody on Earth could make that cloth-- but she used '-san' when she came in. He regarded her with a certain wariness. The bow could be interpreted differently depending on the culture she was using it in. My ball here, so... Japanese. He cleared his throat and said, "Why are you here?" Damn. That came off wrong. I don't want to sound rude. We need her. He rubbed the back of his head and shrugged a little. "I mean... I didn't expect to see you again."

She gave him a small, uncomfortable smile. "I didn't really expect it either, but someone asked me to bring you out to the garden."

"Someone?" Wouldn't she say if it was Crawford? Who else could it be? "It's not like I'm doing anything better right now." He picked up the remote and clicked off the game. Wasn't watching it anyway.

As an afterthought, he keyed the sequence to dissolve his workstation back into the table. He looked at Aya-chan and shrugged. "All set." Your ball, sweetheart.

She hesitated for a moment. "If I bring the chair over, can you get yourself into it?"

"What, and not make the thugs do their work?"

"He said that, if you're willing, you don't need guards." She looked at the foot of the bed, obviously avoiding his eyes.

He? Oh-- Ken's eyes widened a little as he realized. He cleared his throat. "He's... here?" Stating the obvious.

She nodded and met his eyes. She raised her chin. "Brad Saw it in plenty of time to get ready." She walked over to the corner where his chair lived, turned it around and pushed it toward him.

Probably only just in time. Ken turned himself so that his legs projected off the bed and contemplated the chair. "Closer," he said, "and a bit to the right. No, I mean my right. Yes. There." I think. He didn't allow himself time to think about the process of transferring to the chair. In his experience, thinking about that sort of thing was the surest way to botch it. My body knows what it's doing.

Once he was seated, a question occurred to him. "Should I be dressing up or something? I mean, he is pretty important, right?" He plucked at his t-shirt. "This isn't very fancy." He looked up at her without turning his head. "Of course, if I'd had some warning..."

She didn't respond to the dig, just stepped around him and looked him up and down. "I think... This isn't a formal meeting." She moved back a little, still looking him over. "Do you have a comb?"

He waved a hand toward the bathroom. "In there." What? Does she think I wouldn't?

She went in after it.

I bet 'Brad' didn't tell her to dress me up, and she's not sure if that means not to do it or that he assumed she'd know to do it. Screw it. I'm not dressing up for this guy. I'm clean. I'm decent. "These clothes'll do," he said firmly. "At least... It's not cold out there, is it?" He let a little suspicion into his voice.

She giggled as she emerged from the bathroom then covered her mouth, looking embarrassed. "No. No. It's nice right now. The sun's even out. Now hold still--" She ran the comb through his hair and stepped back, frowning. "That didn't help."

He shook his head. "It's fine." And he doesn't give a damn what my hair looks like. He's not a girl.

Aya-chan fussed for a while longer before finally admitting defeat. She muttered something about a sow's ear that Ken resolutely didn't hear. Then she pushed him out the door.

Moving through the corridors without the phalanx of guards was a new experience. Usually, everybody kind of disappears. He amused himself by gawking at the few non-humans he saw. Sort of like a cross between a rat and a crawfish. And that one looks kind of human apart from the colors. I wonder how that rainbow ripple thing works?

The state of the garden surprised him. Broken-- crumbled-- stone and concrete lay everywhere, but the plants were largely undamaged. "What the hell happened here?" Ken twisted around to look at Aya-chan.

She shrugged. "Naoe-kun got angry." She put just the slightest emphasis on the honorific.

Ken frowned. "He throw a lot of tantrums?" And how the hell do we get this chair across that?

"Who would stop him?" She seemed to be looking for someone. "But no, I don't believe he does it often." She sighed softly. "He doesn't care for me, Hidaka-san. I can offer no insights into his character. Ah. There they are." She waved one hand.

Ken turned to look and saw three people approaching them. Two were human. More or less. The third looked a bit like a giant cricket. A cricket spray-painted by color blind graffiti artists.

"They'll take you where you're going, Hidaka-san." Aya-chan moved to stand next to Ken's wheelchair for a moment. "Just give him what he wants," she said softly, "and be polite. He likes that." She touched Ken's shoulder then started to walk away. "I'm going to talk to my brother now."

Ken hesitated then shook his head. Nothing to say to any of that. And there are things I shouldn't say to her. He fixed his eyes on the approaching figures.

The cricket bobbed its body in what might have been a bow and said something in a language Ken didn't recognize. Half a second later, Taisken words started issuing from a small box attached to the creature's body. "Welcome, Potential Hidaka. Please allow my colleagues to assist you, and we'll escort you to our lord."

The other two didn't wait for Ken's response. They separated, each heading for opposite sides of the wheelchair.

Ken waved a hand at them and said, "Not like I'm going anywhere without help."

The two men attached something to the sides of Ken's chair then lifted. That's not muscle. It's too even. Must be more weird tech. They stepped forward in unison, and the chair glided through the air between them.

Ken peered down one side. There was an orange rod protruding from the wheel, and the man on that side held it loosely in one hand. The variations in his pace as he walked over the debris and broken ground didn't affect the movement of the chair at all. He's guiding, steering, but not lifting. Ken nodded once in satisfaction. I guessed right.

The cricket spoke again. "Have you been in the gardens before, Potential Hidaka?"

"No."  Ken looked around, cataloging details. Part of him knew he ought to talk to the creature, to find out if it might be a friend or at least an ally, but that seemed like a distraction. Like running laps ten minutes before a big game. No. This is part of the big game. All of it. He forced a smile. "I haven't been out of my bed very much since I broke my leg." The chains didn't help either.

"I understand that it's normally very beautiful." The cricket sniffed.

Ken wasn't sure if the sound was meant to be thoughtful or dismissive. "It still is if you look at the plants." They're Earth plants. Don't diss them to me.

The cricket touched a leaf as they passed a bush. "Do you know the chemical composition of this foliage? It smells appealing."

Ken blinked. "I'm not sure. I believe it varies from plant to plant. Crawford might know." He knew he ought to give Crawford his proper Taisken title, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. I don't have to. I'm outside the system. At least for now.

The cricket clicked and chirped. "I understood that you worked with plants." It sounded disbelieving, almost insulted.

"I'm a florist," Ken protested. "It's-- I just put flowers and plants together to be pretty." Let's not talk about the night job. "I'm not a-- a botanist or anything."

"Oh."

Ken wished he could read the creature's expressions. He looked sideways at the men steering his chair. No help there. You'd think they were wearing masks. It took effort to keep himself from frowning. "Sorry to disappoint you." I'm really no one special that way. Then he thought of an excuse. "You have to be older than me to be a botanist." And it's kind of true, what with college and all.

"Ah. You are very young." The cricket sounded as if this explained everything. It touched Ken's arm. "I expect you'd have become an excellent botanist."

Ken didn't flinch, but it was a near thing. Okay. Whatever. Are we there yet? "Where exactly are we going?" And what am I supposed to call you? Should I ask? Better not. It might be rude.

The cricket bowed again. "I apologize, Potential Hidaka. Our lord instructed us to find a private place for the two of you to talk. We are nearly there." It waved a forelimb in the direction they were walking. "Just beyond those bushes."

In Ken's opinion, 'those bushes' looked a lot like trees. Well, except that they're bushy all the way to the ground. Are they recent transplants? Why the hell would somebody move a plant like that? Let alone a couple dozen of them? Right. Privacy. They didn't find it so they made it. "How... creative." They're planted too damned close together. I think so, anyway. Hell, I'm not a landscaper, but if they were scaled down and stuck in a window box, half of 'em would die. He wrapped his hands around the armrests of his chair.

"Thank you."

The two carriers set the chair down on a paved walkway that led between some of the bushes. One of them stepped behind and started pushing. The other man bowed then left. Well, I suppose if he has something better to do...

They moved rapidly along the path, and after a few seconds, it opened into a completely enclosed, partially paved, circular space. Ken noted that the pavement seemed new. The plants aren't growing over or around it, and they're recently cut back. About a third of the enclosure edged on an obviously artificial cliff, about four meters tall. Water trickled down the middle of it into a tiny pool and then disappeared.

The man who'd been pushing the chair helped Ken move from it to a stone bench. Which has obviously just been cleaned. That or it's new, too. Then he left, taking the chair with him. Just in case I wanted to attack the High Lord with my wheelchair. Right. Or maybe it clashes with the bushes somehow. Fuck it. I don't care why. He sighed and looked at the cricket. "What now?"

"The High Lord will be with you as soon as his other business is concluded." The cricket bowed once more. "Please wait here." It looked around. "I trust the environment will prove pleasant."

Like I can go somewhere. What the hell do you think I'm going to do? "Of course."

The cricket backed away.

What? You can't turn your back on me? The other guys sure as hell did, and I bet you outrank the muscle. Ken fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position on the unyielding surface. Hell. I ought to have my leg elevated. He turned and lifted his injured leg so that it stretched across the seat. Then he distracted himself by looking around again.

Several minutes passed. What the hell was the point of all the hurry up and wait? He forced his mind into mid-game clarity. To impress me with how little I matter. Gives him a psychological advantage even if I'm as dumb as Crawford thinks. He craned his neck to look behind him. Well, no fear of snipers unless they're tiny and in the trees.

A throat clearing drew Ken's attention back to the entrance to the clearing. A man stood there, a very human looking man, who Ken recognized from Crawford's briefings as the High Lord Caio. He's short. I thought he'd be taller than Crawford. Ken blinked. Muscles. I bet he works out. Not weights, though. Not enough mass to him. Swimming or dance or... Irrelevant. Does he bleach his hair? No. Also irrelevant. Fancy clothes. Am I going to have to dress like that? How long does it take to put together every morning? The High Lord's arms and torso were clothed in interwoven strips of fabric of white and blue and gold. Wouldn't all the bits and pieces get in the way in a fight? Maybe not, but-- He flushed as it occurred to him that the High Lord had almost certainly read those thoughts.

The High Lord looked Ken over and frowned. "Unprepossessing." He walked around Ken's bench. "Hard to believe you're Crawford's prize."

The scrutiny set Ken's teeth on edge, and he responded with more aggression than he'd intended. "I'm not Crawford's fucking anything!" He flexed then clenched his hands, longing for the weight of his claws. Then he carefully put the anger away behind grim focus.

The other man stopped directly in front of Ken and just out of reach of even the most desperate lunge. He drew himself up to his full height.

Which still isn't much.

"Thinking of attacking me?" The High Lord didn't quite sneer. "That would not be wise at all."

Ken met the other man's gaze without flinching. "Then stop trying to piss me off."

"Trying? I really thought I was succeeding." The High Lord flashed a smile then sat on the other bench. "You are a peculiar challenge."

Unprepossessing and a peculiar challenge? Isn't that contradictory? He's playing with me. "And you're the guy I'm supposed to swear eternal loyalty to. So what?" Ken's back ached from sitting with his leg across the bench.

"One would think you didn't feel honored to look upon me." The High Lord didn't quite laugh.

Ken shrugged. "I don't. The whole kidnapping thing--? Yeah. Quite an honor. You even brought my best friends along to torture."

"Crawford's gone to great pains to secure your cooperation. You need only withhold it."  The High Lord started to get to his feet. "If that is your intent, then this meeting need last no longer."

"And what happens to us then?" Yeah. Us. I come with a team. It's a package deal. "The choices suck."

The High Lord settled back into his chair, looking amused.

Like he ever intended to leave. Ken kept his face still. I'm too damned valuable, even if I end up cracked, aren't I?

"Crawford assured me that he'd given you cultured Taisken. He didn't mention that you torture it."

Ken met the other man's gaze flatly. "I can exercise appropriate courtesy. When I deem it fit." He used his most formal Taisken, speaking as an unaffiliated power to a greater power in negotiation. "But it's boring shit, and we both know the score, so why bother?"

"Your teammates are beyond your aid, you know. Even if you prove out, I won't take Naoe's toy from him, and Crawford has a reasonable claim on his brother-in-law." There was no give in the High Lord's tone or body language.

Hell, he won't let me even try. He's got the ball, all the good players and an unbeatable lead, and he knows it. Ken flashed a smile, showing his teeth. "Working on that. And I will win. Anything else is unacceptable." He shook his head. "And there's still Omi."

"Tell me about Omi."

"Don't you already know?" Ken studied the High Lord's face. "I mean, you got the files, and my shields are crap."

"Your shields are... not dreadful, and I find it more informative to hear how a person vocalizes those thoughts that matter." The High Lord waved a dismissive hand. "Humor me. I can take those thoughts, and I will be looking at your mind quite closely, but that's a poor start to a working relationship."

Ken snorted,  not bothering to hide disbelief. "Crawford says you did it to him. And to the others."  And I don't doubt him on that. Not at all.

"Wouldn't you? He came to me out of nowhere. He might have intended anything."

Ken shrugged. "I suppose, but I already know he's an asshole, so..." He shrugged again, not quite sure how to say what he meant.

"So you know to distrust him, but I should not have?" The High Lord folded his hands together and didn't quite smile. He nodded once. "I needed to know exactly how to distrust him. He surprised me."

Ken hesitated then said, "Is he telling me the truth? About what he intends, I mean. It's all so sure and slick and simple, and he's-- He's an asshole. He twists everything around."

"What has he told you?"

Ken pushed the palms of his hands together to stretch his shoulders then shook his head. "That you're the best of a bad lot unless we can find a... candidate from Earth." He rubbed the back of his neck. "Not sure why he thinks someone from Earth will be better." Unless he thinks he can control them. And he probably does think so. "Absolute power and all that crap."

The High Lord raised his eyebrows. "Do you believe that power corrupts?" :And if you do, why are you doing this?:

Ken managed not to flinch at the voice in his head. Not like he wasn't already there. "Hell, yes," he replied. "Not everybody gets hooked. Must've been one or two who didn't. There's one hell of a high in power over." He very deliberately moved his hands as if extending his claws.

The High Lord studied Ken's face for a moment. When he spoke again, he sounded amused. "An interesting self-analysis. Do you expect to continue killing?"

"If I understand right," Ken said dryly, "I'll be busy with other stuff." He let his hands fall to his sides.

"But you enjoy it?"

"There are other things I like better. Just, if I can't have them, I'll settle." A good fight's simple, physical, none of this playing with words shit.

The High Lord leaned back in his chair. "I see why you frustrate Crawford."

Ken grinned. "I do that for fun."

"And because he needs it." The High Lord met Ken's eyes. "He has the potential to be very useful, even-- by certain standards-- very powerful, if he grows up."

"I'm younger than he is." Though I suppose it looks the same to you. What's a few years against a few centuries?

"Yes, you are." The High Lord's voice was suddenly serious. "You're only just old enough for us to have this conversation at all. Just barely."

"And if I weren't?" What then?

The High Lord dismissed the question with a wave. "Crawford would have delayed. He needs you to do this thing-- or thinks he does-- and he knows I will not allow a child to choose this risk."

Ken's mind refused to look at that statement straight on, instead skittering to one side. "Omi-- He's younger than me. What about him?"

"He's not being asked to risk his sanity."

"And being kidnapped--" Again. "--imprisoned, stripped and driven to catatonia by flashbacks is different?" Ken raised his chin and glared.

The High Lord shifted on the bench, showing the first signs of-- Ken couldn't quite call it uncertainty. He's got an answer for everything. But maybe not that. Got you, didn't I?

"I'd be more upset with Crawford if your friend actually were catatonic," the High Lord drawled.

Fuck. Ken tensed, his body going to full combat alert. No. That was inevitable. I knew we'd go there. "And what are you going to do with that? I'm sure Crawford would love to know."

"Nothing." The High Lord smiled, looking gently amused and about as threatened as if Ken were an irate goldfish. "If he manages to escape Crawford, it will serve as a lesson for him and inconvenience me not at all. If he doesn't..." He shrugged.

"Crawford threatened to have Naoe rape him." Omi matters, damn it!

"Either he lied, or he was planning to wait a year or two."

"But rape'd be okay then?" Ken could hear the anger in his voice and knew, vaguely, that letting it show might be a stupid move. He was past caring.

The High Lord straightened, suddenly seeming larger and scarier. "Are you judging me?"

Tough opponent. Ken had to acknowledge the force of the other's will. But I've faced worse. He refused to consider that that might not actually be true. "Aren't I entitled? I'm thinking about swearing to you. Better now than later. And right is right. No matter how much power you have."

The High Lord stared at him then laughed incredulously. "Do you even know what you're doing? What you're risking?"

Ken met his eyes steadily. "Doesn't matter. I don't kiss ass, and I call them like I see them." He felt a brief pang of doubt. Would Omi want me to lie, to suck up? No. I can't, and Omi's not here. He's not even on the bench, waiting to play. "If you don't want who I am, we can skip the whole damned thing."

"Why would you work for someone you consider evil?"

"Only game going, isn't it? You want to play, you take what offers." Ken shrugged. "Regardless of what anybody tells you, I'm not stupid. And you're less a monster than some of the others." And I think you're going to win. I don't want Schwarz to be all that's protecting Earth then.

"According to Crawford." The High Lord's tone was bitterly dry.

"Well, yeah."

"And you're not going to try to sell me out or trade me in for someone better?"

"Trading you in is the whole fucking point." Ken shook his head. "I thought Crawford told you that part."

"And what if you can't do it his way? Or if it takes decades? What do you plan to do in the meantime?"

"Until I see what this precognition deal means, I got no idea." Ken looked away. No point lying. "You treat your worlds pretty good. Earth's... It's not doing real well anyway. If the takeover doesn't wreck things, it could be better for lots of people." As long as they don't get personal attention.

The High Lord looked thoughtful. :You're getting personal attention. Does that worry you?:  He smiled, just the barest shadow of an expression. "So bad things happen anyway... Is that it?" He nodded. "I think I can see your... I hesitate to call it logic, but no other term comes to mind."

Ken decided to ignore the mental whisper. I'm not worried. Really. "Why're you acting like I'm a sure thing? Crawford's dead sure I'll be drooling."

The High Lord tapped one finger on the back of his other hand. "Crawford's experience is limited. Estet warped its people in ways that would have destroyed you, so he sees no strength in you."

Ken gave the High Lord a hard, assessing look. "So you're betting on me?" No. That's not right...

"Say rather, that I'm not betting against you. Assuming you can govern your temper." The High Lord paused for a moment as if in contemplation. "You would be... convenient. If you survive. If you keep faith with me. Almost all I know of your world comes from Crawford, and his biases differ from yours." His expression hardened, and he leaned forward a bit. "Before we go forward with this, I require that you let me into your mind."

Ken lifted and dropped one shoulder in a shrug. "Not like I can keep you out."

The High Lord frowned. "That is not the point. You must understand-- If there is any possibility that you'll be a first tier talent, I must know how far I can trust you." He sighed. "Call the request a courtesy if you will. I choose to ask. As I said earlier, I don't wish to start the relationship wrongly."

"It's already started pretty fucking badly," Ken replied, massaging his injured leg to emphasize the point. "Crawford sent goons who beat the shit out of me. Not exactly a happy thing. Not like a fancy invitation with careful calligraphy." And that's leaving out what your people are doing to mine.

The High Lord spread his hands as if to indicate that what was around them was all they had to work with. "Crawford lacks subtlety."

The two men stared at each other without speaking for almost a minute. Finally, Ken shrugged. "Fine. I get nothing from you without it, right? Go ahead." He lowered his sketchy shields and braced himself, forcing himself to continue looking into the High Lord's eyes.

The first touch of the High Lord's mind was brief and cold, leaving Ken feeling like he'd somehow managed to dip his mind in rubbing alcohol and then had it all evaporate in a millisecond. His stomach heaved once then stilled. He set his jaw and nodded to the other man.

The High Lord laughed softly, almost a sound of delight. "Oh, yes. Crawford underestimates you."

"I prefer that," Ken replied.

The next touch came almost immediately, viscous with alternating flares of heat and bone snapping chill. Part of Ken's mind wondered how he could keep breathing through it, and part simply noted that the sensations weren't strictly physical and focused on keeping his body responding only to what was real.

Then Ken let himself stop thinking. The High Lord would, he knew, do what he wished. Ken's conscious presence mattered not at all.

When the whole thing ended and Ken let himself note such cues again, the length and direction of the shadows announced that hours had passed. He cleared his throat. "Well, that was fun." Not.

"It's not meant to be pleasant." The High Lord didn't look at Ken.

"Are you happy?"

"I'm satisfied, yes. Surprisingly enough." The High Lord stood and stretched. "You've no imperial ambitions-- an astonishingly common failing and one that Seers at your probable power level can too often realize, at least for a time. Very inconvenient." He walked around the clearing a few times.

Ken wished he could do the same, but he knew his leg wouldn't hold him, yet. Instead, he did what he could to stretch in place and started massaging his thigh. "Does this mean I bargain with you now instead of two weeks from now?"

"Preliminaries, at least. Let's make sure I know what you expect."

Ken hesitated. I don't do negotiations. That's Omi's territory.

"Your Omi is not here." The High Lord's frown told Ken to get used to it. "And you did adequately with Crawford's wife, your other friend's sister. She's kept her promise, encouraging him to leave if he can."

That. I want that. Ken cleared his throat. "Them. All three of them. I want them safe."

"I can give you Omi easily enough. Though we both know he's on borrowed time. "

Ken shook his head at the mention of Omi's life expectancy. "He's fine so far." And Ran can't be on his own.

"So far. Do you want him blocked?"

"No." Omi'd kill me if I took away his only weapon. Ken sighed. "Maybe later. Maybe... It depends on how it all goes."
 
"Very well." The High Lord pressed his hands together and tapped his fingertips against each other. "Crawford's brother-in-law will be more complicated, but if you're first tier, he may choose to swear to you instead of allowing Crawford to claim his fealty through the marriage. He's of age and mentally competent, so he has that option."

Ken nodded. Enough for now. "And Yohji?"

"If Naoe discards him, he's yours, but I will not intervene in the current situation."

Ken opened his mouth to argue then thought better of it. He clenched his fists against the sick pain in his belly. Yohji knew this. He told me to do it. But... I can't just abandon him. I can't. He scrubbed his face with one hand, knowing that he was showing weakness by doing it. And I won't. I'll just have to work at it afterward. I'll be able to ask for more later. He nodded once, abruptly. "If that's the best I can get."

"Your Yohji is starting to interest me greatly. He seems to elicit strong... reactions." The High Lord looked away, giving Ken a moment of almost privacy. "Anything else?"

"I want a... a referee. Someone who doesn't work for Crawford to make sure he plays fair, to stay with me during and after. I don't trust him."

"Done."

"And somebody needs to teach Ran to shield. Last night almost killed him." Plus Schuldig's playing games with his mind.

The High Lord frowned. "Yes. That's a bad situation. I'd be stepping in anyway." He leveled a hard look at Ken. "Bear this in mind-- I don't make many rules for people like you-- or like Crawford-- but those I make, I mean, and I will enforce."

Ken blinked and tried to figure out what that meant. After a moment, he shrugged. Whatever. Not like we've got choices. "I want Taisken for him and for Omi, too. Without telling Crawford that Omi's awake."

"If Crawford asks me to look at your friend, I will not lie. I have no obligations to Omi, while Crawford and I have exchanged oaths."

"He won't ask," Ken replied, squashing his own doubts. Omi's easier to handle, more of a lever on Ran, if he's still out. Yeah, but... How long could he really stay out like that without real damage? Would Crawford care? "Is there anything that'll help Omi? Besides blocking, I mean. I know cyberpsi is dangerous..."

The High Lord looked back at Ken and shook his head. "Convince him never to use the power again."

Not a chance in hell. "Only if he, Ran and Yohji are free and safe."

"Then--" The High Lord broke off, looking distracted, and held up a hand to halt the conversation. After a moment, he rose to his feet. "Dine with me tonight." It was not in any way an invitation. "I'm needed elsewhere now." He turned his back on Ken then looked back for a second. "When you hear the news, don't worry. Your friend is as safe as he was." The High Lord walked away.

Back to Index.
Back to Part 15.
On to Part 17.

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