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On to Part 19.

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 June 2010

Thanks to Daegaer and Catnotdead for various bits of beta reading, commentary and encouragement.


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 18

Ran held his head and wished his headache were worse. Then it might actually swallow me so I could disappear. He raised his head and looked at the door into Omi's room. Any minute he'll come out and ask what happened, why was I out so long. How do I tell him--?

As if summoned, Omi appeared in the doorway. "Ran? Are you all right?" He frowned a little as if Ran's appearance worried him. "Is there something I could get for you?"

What works for a hangover? "Water, please. I think... There might be something for pain in the medicine cabinet." Ran hesitated then added, "Ken thought alcohol would make last night easier for me. He didn't drink at all." What do I tell Omi about Ken?

Omi nodded and headed for the kitchen.

Ran swallowed hard. "Ken said that he thought about asking the High Lord not to give you the language. Just so I couldn't tell you anything for another day or two. Instead, he just kept me away until it was done." He closed his eyes, seeing Ken lying still on the narrow bed, tubes disappearing under the light blanket that covered him to his chest. "He said you needed the language too much and that twelve days of worrying wasn't better than fourteen." Ken wanted me there. I think... I think he wanted a friend there, and I was the best he could do. He wanted a friend all night.

"What will worry me?" Omi's words were clipped and tense. He held out a cup, keeping it steady in front of Ran until he gripped it firmly.

"Today they did that thing to start his precognition." Ran took a moment to drink. "He's going to be unconscious for about two weeks. What he didn't tell us--" He set the cup down carefully. "The process is...mostly safe." He bit his lip. You're not going to like the next part. "The part that isn't, the thing you'll--" We'll. "--worry about is after he wakes up." He looked up and met Omi's eyes. "Having precognition is dangerous. Having powerful precognition is almost unsurvivable. He might be fine. He thinks he will be." The High Lord thinks he will be. He wouldn't bother with dinners otherwise.

Omi's expression darkened, and Ran wondered how anyone could think him harmless. No, he doesn't show that face to most people. He...trusts me.

"I didn't feel this bad earlier." I've been up for three hours. I thought hangovers were worse right after a person woke up. Ran rubbed the side of his face, right below his left eye. Maybe I should have had breakfast. The thought of food brought acid into his throat.

Omi sat down on a stool several feet away. "Can we make a difference?"

The question sounded urgent, so Ran gave it his full attention. "I don't see how. Not unless we can get inside Ken's brain and make sure he stays sane." And that sounds disgusting. How do telepaths stand it? "Everyone said it's up to Ken, that it's not something that can be taught."

Omi's hands clenched and unclenched. "Nobody can help?" When Ran shook his head, Omi took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. He repeated the process several times. "I think I need a full report, as close to verbatim as you can manage. Are you up to that?"

"I can manage." Ran straightened his back. I always manage. "And the High Lord said nobody can help. Crawford was..." He pressed his lips together, trying not to let his disgust overwhelm him. However well the rest of the language works, the swearing feels wrong. "He was smug. Ken said Crawford's sure Ken won't win."

Omi studied Ran for a long moment. "Ken thinks he has a good chance."

Ken is insane. Ran simply nodded. "He's also getting something just for trying. That's why you have the language. That's why I'll be getting lessons in shielding my mind." He rubbed the side of his face again. "I didn't think Ken knew how to bargain."

Omi flicked his hand as if propelling drops of water off his fingertips. "Ken bargaining would have worried Kritiker. They didn't think he could."

And I was taken in, too. "Ken said that I don't pay enough attention to the rest of you."  I thought we were all companions in damnation.

"From what you say, Ken said a lot last night." Omi sounded as if he didn't quite approve.

"He said I needed to hear it." I'm not sure he was wrong. "He said I'd make bad decisions if I..." Ran shook his head minutely, trying not to make his headache worse. "He said I don't understand any of you." He looked at Omi and tried not to plead. "I trust you." I don't know if I trust Ken any more.

"It will help the team more if you understand the rest of us." Omi sighed and rubbed his own face. "I haven't pushed you on it because it didn't matter before." "Is it really that important?" We kill together. What else do I need to know?

"That depends." Omi licked his lips. "What am I to you?"

Ran blinked. "My boss."

Omi frowned.

Not the answer he wanted?

"Am I your friend, Ran? Are Yohji and Ken?"

"You're..." What's the right answer? They're comrades. We live and die beside each other. Now Ran licked his lips. "We're not entitled to--"

Omi snorted. "Cut the crap! We're entitled to the same as other people. You may like to think you're not human or not alive any more, but you're both. All of us are. The logistics of getting what we deserve are...complicated by circumstances, but we're not unworthy. We don't deserve to be severed from the good things in life."

Ran's hands twitched. Omi's words sounded uncomfortably like echoes of Ken's. "Don't you ever feel guilty?"

"I'm going to see about those aspirin." Omi picked up Ran's cup. As he walked out of the room, he said, "We all feel guilty sometimes. We all make choices and pay for them. We all decided what matters to us."

Ran listened as Omi rummaged in the medicine cabinet. I-- I can't think right now. Am I being a coward? Maybe. Maybe.

"Ken gave up Kase for what was right. Yohji-- Yohji gave up Asuka for me. You..." Omi handed Ran the water and a red capsule. "Do you remember who you are?"

Ran swallowed the capsule, using that as an excuse not to answer. I'm nobody. We're all nobody.

"Maybe it's because you didn't start with Weiss." Omi sounded sad. "You thought the team existed apart from its members. It doesn't, not really. You could have a team with different people and the same name, but it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be what any of us mean when we say 'Weiss.'"

Ran coughed a little. "Weiss is a team with a function."

"No. Weiss is you and me and Ken and Yohji. Losing one of us diminishes Weiss. Losing two... The two left would still have something with each other. We're brothers, Ran. Nothing can change that."

Ran felt like he'd been stabbed. He wrapped his arms around his body. "I-- We-- I don't deserve that."

Omi pushed Ran's hair back off his face. "You have it anyway." He smiled at Ran. "You can't get rid of it."

Ran shook his head. "I don't--"

Omi snapped his fingers in front of Ran's nose. "No. Irrelevant." He walked away to seat himself again. He studied Ran for a moment, leaning his chin on one hand while using a knee to support the arm. "I need that report now."

Report? Oh, right. Ran twitched as he forced his mind to switch into report mode. He cleared his throat. "My sister fussed over us for a couple of hours, trying to get us looking-- and smelling-- right. At least we got to wear Japanese formal wear." He rubbed the back of his head. How much of Aya do you need to know about? You were in the next room for that.

Omi frowned and waved two fingers. "Fast forward past the stuff here. I at least heard all of that."

Ran nodded minutely. "The room was huge, a big banquet hall sort of space. The table was small. It looked kind of silly in all that space, but there weren't many of us, just me, Ken, Aya, Crawford, Schuldig and the High Lord at the table. Everybody else was either a guard or a servant. Not all of them were human." Do you want me to list them? He raised his eyebrows to ask the question.


"The whole place was crawling with plants. Literally crawling. Some of them moved. Must have driven the guards crazy." It made my skin crawl. "Schuldig said someone had told them that Ken liked plants, so it was in his honor." I didn't recognize half of them as plants. There wasn't much green. "They'd brought in the best they could find, stuff growing on trellises, stuff in troughs, flowers on the walls and ceiling. At least, I think they were flowers."

"Close enough." Omi shrugged. "Unless it matters later?"

Ran shook his head. "There was a little discussion of it, but it was kind of like talking about the weather, something neutral to fill in space."

Ran kept his eyes on the back of his sister's head. It's a mission. Not that sort of mission, but still a mission. Bombay gave the order. Siberian's in charge. He could feel people moving around behind him, and he wanted to look, to move to put something solid behind his back. She looks older with her hair like this. He frowned. She's too young. Too young to be-- whatever she's doing with Crawford. Too young for aliens invading the planet. Too young for politics and torture and... He smoothed his expression. At least, I've got her back.

Aya and Crawford stood next to each other with Ken, still in a wheelchair, on Aya's other side. Schuldig stood behind Crawford just as Ran stood behind Aya.

Ken had explained the whole thing as a way of showing relative status and allegiances. When Ran had asked why he couldn't simply stand behind Ken, putting more distance between himself and Schuldig, Ken had simply leveled a flat glare at Ran and said, "No."

How am I supposed to understand if nobody explains? Ran smoothed the dark blue fabric of his haori. The last time I dressed like this was-- Never, really. Our family wasn't that traditional. Or that wealthy. The long familiar longing for his parents threatened to swallow him. Dad would know what to do about Aya and Crawford. Wouldn't he? Well, Mom would never have let it happen in the first place. Unlike me.

Crawford cleared his throat and turned to look at Ran. "When the High Lord propositions you," he said, "turn him down politely."

Ken twitched.

Ran blinked, trying to arrange Crawford's words into something that made sense.

Schuldig snickered. :He said exactly what you think he said.: Then Schuldig's mental voice took on Crawford's intonations. :Going into more detail about the vision would... distress your sister. Amusing as it might be to watch you dealing with the repercussions of saying 'yes,' I will veto it-- publicly-- if I have to.: Schuldig's voice returned to normal. :Try it. Really. I could use a laugh. Oh, and the reason the boss-man's not being more explicit is that he doesn't want to dirty the little woman's ears by talking about s-e-x. You'd think he and she had never--:

Ran punched Schuldig then raised his fists as Schuldig staggered.

Schuldig leaped at Ran. Only Crawford's out thrust arm stopped Schuldig from grabbing Ran's throat.

"Schuldig!" Crawford glared at the telepath.

Schuldig froze. His eyes widened as his jaw tensed. He made a growling noise low in his throat.

The two men stared at each other for more than a minute. Ran was certain that some sort of secret conversation was taking place. He was also certain that Schuldig didn't like what was being said.

Ken tugged on Ran's sleeve.

Ran turned, looked down at Ken then leaned closer as Ken continued to pull.

"You will say 'no.'" Ken's voice was soft but utterly adamant. He met Ran's eyes.  "He won't be serious about it, anyway. He likes seeing how people react."

A slight relaxing in Aya's posture told Ran that she'd heard Ken's words.

An absolute ruler, Ran reminded himself, a real absolute ruler, merits extreme caution. Those were Omi's words, Omi's emphasis, but Ran understood them. Intellectually, that is. Emotionally-- He looked around the room, watched servers scurrying, obvious security watching everything and testing everything, musicians tuning, other people-- People whose jobs I've no idea about. --standing around and waiting.

Schuldig said something brief that Ran couldn't understand, and everyone but Ran turned their attention immediately to the closed double doors on the other end of the room.

I hate this language programming. Ran refused to let his embarrassment show as he copied the change of focus. How many days before I understand anything besides Taisken? He'd lost count of the times he'd searched his mind for words that he knew should be there, for concepts that Taisken didn't quite accommodate. They're still there. Ken and Aya both promised that.

"Two minutes," Ken murmured. "He said, 'Two minutes.' In Japanese."

Aya reached back and patted Ran's arm.

Ran didn't even have to look at Schuldig to know that the use of Japanese had been deliberate, intended to be hurtful. The time to be careful is when it doesn't look like it's meant to be. Those words, too, came from Omi, and Ran found himself wishing, again, that their team leader could be present. He took a deep breath. I can do this. Ken and Aya spent the whole afternoon going over the mission details. If I can remember six new passwords and four floor plans, several detailed dossiers and half a dozen contingency plans, I can remember forms of address and the uses of weird eating utensils. Not like anybody's going to want to talk to me.

'An informal meal,' Aya had called the dinner, but her insistence on drilling him in etiquette and on overseeing every detail of his appearance had indicated otherwise. Not to mention the clothing. If this is informal, I'd hate to see what these people consider formal. Then again, this is the High Lord. I suppose formality means something different for him.

The doors opened outward. Two women in matching uniforms entered. They scanned the room then moved to stand to either side of the door, their movements and stances mirroring each other. And they're lethal, too. That precision takes years. Honor guard or bodyguard or both? Both. They have to be.

A few seconds later, an overdressed man came through the door.

He's black and blond. I've never seen that before. Ran blinked. I was expecting Japanese or Caucasian. No one said. He's not as tall as me but taller than Omi. He looks... not exactly soft. Why is it that the scariest people don't look like they can kill you? He's fit, but he's not lethal. Not physically lethal, anyway.

The High Lord stopped three steps into the room.

Everyone except the guards bowed. Ran made himself take note of how deeply various people bowed. Status. The ones on the floor are slaves. Omi will want to know.

The High Lord nodded, and one of the musicians played a few notes.

Ran straightened up a fraction of a second after his sister. Nobody told me we'd have a musical cue. He kept his expression flat.

Ran followed his sister to the table. He pushed Ken's wheelchair into position then waited while she sat on a low stool. He took his seat between her and Ken. At least that puts her far away from Crawford. Except... He looked across the table at Schuldig. I don't want him anywhere near my sister.

Schuldig smiled. He said something that Ran couldn't understand.

Aya frowned. "My brother can't currently understand that."

"Telepath Third--" The High Lord's tone was mild. "Are you giving my ward difficulties?"

Ran's jaw dropped. "Your ward?" The words came out before he could stop them.

Ken's elbow connected hard with Ran's ribs.

"Well, Mr. Fujimiya, you weren't available." The High Lord raised his glass, and a waiter filled it with what looked like water. :And you're my ward's brother. I don't think your brother-in-law has quite thought that through. Yet. He's very quick, so I'm sure he'll think of it soon.:

"I'm not old enough to marry, legally, without a guardian to look after my interests." Aya sighed and didn't quite look at Ran. "Not here anyway." She flashed a smile at the High Lord.

Ran's mental world tilted. Is my sister flirting with-- He blinked twice. Is my sister flirting with the alien overlord of multiple planets? He gave as much of a bow as he could while seated. "Thank you for looking after my sister's interests, Highest." Remembering Ken's sharp elbows and Aya's threats of mayhem, he did his best to sound like he meant it. Not that she'd need it if Crawford hadn't--

Crawford cleared his throat. "It is quite an honor." He sipped from his glass.

Is that why he married her? For the honor of a connection to the High Lord? Ran didn't quite believe it, but he would have liked to. He tried his own drink. He couldn't help making a face as bitterness spread across his tongue and clung to his palate.

:Vile, isn't it?: The sound of Schuldig's voice in his mind made Ran dart a worried glance up the table toward the High Lord. :He doesn't care,: Schuldig said. :He thinks it's funny how everyone from Earth hates the stuff.: "Getehra is made from frost damaged flowers," he said aloud. "It can be done artificially, flower by flower, but the best flavor comes from natural frost." He lifted his glass and studied the clear liquid within. "That doesn't happen to order, so the stuff's hard to come by."

The High Lord laughed. "Not so hard for me." He inclined his head to one side as if bestowing a gift. "That's why I bring it with me when I come to dine with those who haven't yet had time to build a storehouse."

"Ran, it may not taste that way, but getehra is quite alcoholic. Don't drink much." Aya's eyes were on Ken as she spoke, so Ran guessed the warning was for both of them.

Or maybe it's an excuse so that I can politely limit how much of it I taste.

:She has an excuse not to drink it at all. She has water in her glass.: Schuldig sounded decidedly jealous.

Ran smiled at Schuldig. Suck it up. You're not allowed to pick on her.

Servants brought in food. Each carried only one dish, and each walked slowly in front of a row of seven guards, stopping in front of each. Each of the seven guards removed a sample from each dish and placed it on a plate that was angled to be clearly visible to those seated for dinner. Within seconds, each food sample started to glow.

"The plates are poisoned," Aya said softly. "The glow is a warning from nanites in the food, alerting us to the poison. Each color shows the presence of a different class of poison." She smiled. "They're working perfectly."

Ken cleared his throat. "So we shouldn't eat anything fluorescent?"

"It's usually considered unwise," the High Lord replied. "In fact, if one does-- absent visual disability-- it's usually considered as much suicide as murder."

"Seven doesn't seem like many things to test for." Ran was a little surprised that he'd managed to say anything.

"This is an informal meal." The High Lord fluttered his fingers in a way that Ran suspected was meant to convey meaning. "I've seen meals with dozens of testing trays. Of course, at that point, one has to know the patterns well enough to see if anything isn't being tested."

"The High Lord also," Crawford said with a thin smile, "travels with his own kitchen staff and brings his own food. At least for occasions like this." He offered the High Lord an apologetic bow. "I'm afraid it will be several years before we can offer you even a shadow of appropriate hospitality."

Royal visits could bankrupt. Ran considered history. I wonder if he does that.

:Sometimes I do, but I won't do that here. Your sister's husband is no threat. In fact, he's quite useful. He brought me Naoe and your friend, Hidaka, and he knows quite a bit about your world. Not everything but some better starting points than my people would immediately find. Starting from nothing is... inconvenient and time consuming.:

One of the servants bowed to the High Lord who then raised his hands. The servant ran a cloth over the High Lord's hands, one at a time, carefully cleaning each finger. He bowed again then turned to Ken and waited.

Ken darted a glance at Aya, looking put upon.

Aya twitched her hands. Ran took that to mean that Ken was supposed to raise his hands as the High Lord had, so he stuck a hand under Ken's elbow and pushed. He was tempted to mutter instructions. But Ken might take it wrong. It's a mission. He wouldn't retaliate now. Later, though...

The servant started cleaning Ken's hands the moment they were above the table. Ken sighed and raised his hands higher.

:His options for trivial retaliation here are rather limited.: The High Lord's mental voice sounded amused. :Potential Hidaka likes you too much to allow anything non-trivial if he has a choice. Even if he didn't, he believes you're important for the others.:

Another servant handed out damp clothes to the rest of the dinner party. Ran watched all three of the others, trying to make sure he didn't unintentionally break any rules. He wasn't sure if he should be copying his sister or his-- He ground the cloth against his hand. He's nothing to me. No... He's her husband. I hate it, but she did marry him. Why? Why?

Crawford had started talking about the delicacies they were about to eat. It was a light explanation of their origins and other ways they were commonly prepared and seemed to be aimed at Ken.

Ran felt free to ignore it.

Aya added comments about amusing mishaps in her personal explorations of Taisken cuisine.

Ran felt a little bad about ignoring that, especially since she laughed. He hadn't heard her laugh in-- How long? He smiled at her. "You always liked trying new things."

Crawford frowned.

The High Lord smiled. "You must have many stories about my ward's childhood." He steepled his fingers and looked over them at Ran. "Tell us."

Aya covered her face with her hands and squeaked an inarticulate protest, all of her careful sophistication vanishing.

Crawford smiled. "It can't be that bad, love." He gave her a little wave.

He's...reassuring her. Ran felt sick. He loves her, and she... Yes.

"You have no idea!" Aya shook her head then shuddered theatrically. She peeked through her fingers to look at the High Lord. "He'll make things up, you know. Just to embarrass me."

"Well, yes," the High Lord said. "That is the job of older brothers." He looked at Ran. :At least when parents aren't there to do it. Give her that happiness.:

Ran barely managed to suppress a flinch. To cover it, he tilted his head to one side and grinned at his sister. "Well..." He made himself laugh. Teasing needs that. "I'm only a little older than Aya, you know. I missed some of the better stories just by being too young to notice." And I'm not a storyteller. He bought himself a little time by taking a bite of something orange and sauce covered.

"Thank goodness for that!" Aya poked him with one finger. She looked around the table. "I'll have you know that I was a sweet, obedient child."

"Who thought the world would stop turning when she stamped her foot and shouted, 'No!'" The orange thing didn't taste bad exactly, just wrong, so Ran took another bite. "She liked to sing to herself. She'd make a song out of anything-- getting dressed, walking down the street, bathing..." He allowed himself a large grin as he paused to allow Aya to show proper indignation. "...using the toilet."

She hit him, just hard enough to register a protest. "I did not!"

"You did." Ran wasn't going to yield on that point. "You also spent hours talking to a dead fly you found in your window. Mother told father. They kept hoping you'd forget about it so they could throw it away, but you didn't. Then the dead spider showed up."

"You talked to them, too!"

"I was humoring you." Falling back into being a teasing older brother was easier than he'd expected.

"Singing," Crawford said. He sounded pleased. "Our child will, too." He blinked. "Children, some day."

Ran decided not to think about Crawford. "Any child of yours would have to be odd, Aya. What about the mice?" He looked around the table. "She called them the Imaginary Mice. They lived in the closet. She poured imaginary tea-- made with real water-- out for them to drink. Father suggested that they should live in the sink instead of the closet, so they moved." He shook his head. "Poor things only lasted a few minutes before they were washed down the drain."

Ken laughed. "I bet she has stories about you, too."

"I do," Aya said, sounding pleased. "I just didn't know anybody wanted to hear them."

Ran resisted the urge to duck for cover.

"I'd love to," Ken said. He lowered his voice as if wanting to keep Ran from hearing.

Difficult when I'm sitting between them.

"We should save those for later," Ken went on. "We wouldn't want Ran to start plotting evil, crazy making gifts for the baby." He waved a hand at Aya's belly. "I've heard that uncles can do that a lot, and I bet he could be... creative."

Ran contemplated the few children he'd encountered in the last few years. Sticky fingers in everything. Noise. Or... He inhaled sharply. He remembered too many dead or damaged children. Far more of those than the other. My sister is going to have a child. A child. I'm going to be an uncle. He could imagine that child. Small. Vulnerable. Family. He knew beyond doubt that he would kill anyone who threatened that child. Even if it is Crawford's, too. He cleared his throat. "If I can't think of anything, I'm sure Ken will have suggestions. He's good with kids." Better than I am. He gripped the cloth of his hakama to keep from betraying himself by letting anyone see his hands tremble.

Ken laughed again. "I'm better with older kids. It'll be a while before this one's ready to kick a ball around." He turned to the High Lord. "That's something Crawford didn't tell me-- What're sports like here? Anything I'd enjoy playing?"

The High Lord described his own favorite game. As far as Ran could tell, it involved playing catch while running hurdles in a complicated pattern and having an opposing team trying to trip the runners. The High Lord promised Ken a demonstration. "In three or four weeks. Assuming all goes well."

Ran wasn't blind enough to miss the significant glances running around the table at that. Ken will tell me if I need to know. Right? Except... He looked down at the table, wishing he'd managed to remain oblivious.

"The rest of the meal," Ran said, "was light conversation. I missed a lot because I was trying to figure out what Ken hadn't told us." And wondering how I can manage being an uncle. How can someone like me do that? "There was a lot of food. Each course was tiny, and none of it was food I recognized. One servant washed the High Lord's hands between courses while another two gave the rest of us towels with which to wash our own hands.

"The High Lord dismissed Crawford, Aya and Schuldig, saying that Aya needed to rest. Aya wanted me to go, but the High Lord and Ken both wanted me to stay. Ken went so far as to grab my arm, and the High Lord told me Ken would feel better if I stayed." Ran rolled his shoulders.

"Do you need more water?" Omi hadn't said much while Ran had been talking.

"Yeah. I'll get it. I need to get up anyway." Ran thought maybe he might be able to manage some food now, and he preferred to look over the options himself. That'll let me know what I can handle even thinking about eating. Besides, I need to think about how to tell Omi-- No. I tell him everything, pull no punches.

Ten minutes later, Ran was back in the living room. He had a plate of crackers and sliced pear. Instead of a glass of water, he had a teapot and two cups. "I thought you might like some."

Omi flashed a smile and nodded. He looked as if he'd been thinking hard. "The High Lord is putting a lot of time and effort into Ken."

Ran nodded and ate a slice of pear. He had to force himself not to check the tea. It won't be ready for another five minutes. "There's more to come." He looked away then made himself meet Omi's eyes. "It's why I'm not panicking. The next part was all about bonding with Ken. There was some sort video set up for us to watch a taped football game while we had drinks, and the servants were all Ken's type and wearing...a lot less." And 'Ken's type' is a lot broader than I imagined.

"This part really is informal," the High Lord announced. He rose to his feet with a tiny bounce as he straightened. "More alcohol, entertainment and talk about things that shouldn't be widely shared."

Ken poked Ran who took that as his cue to stand as well. Ran gave half his attention to watching Ken for cues and the other half to watching everyone else. I have Ken's back. He tried not to think about how little he actually could do if anything went wrong.

"An attack on either of you, in my presence, is the same as an attack on me." The High Lord frowned at the room in general. "Over there, I think."

Half a dozen people removed the table and stools while others brought in large cushions and placed them in one corner.

Ran didn't relax. Ken can tell me to stand down. Omi can tell me to stand down. Taking orders from anyone else is betrayal.

Smaller cushions and pillows went on top of the large ones. Two small tables went down just beside the cushions. The High Lord frowned, and another servant came running with a third table.

"I'm not used to fuss," Ken said.

"You'll have to learn." The High Lord smiled as more of his minions came through, this time bringing a large screen that looked like it was meant for video display.

Ran wondered if any of the people filling the room were ever going to leave. He missed his katana. Even a poorly balanced kitchen knife would have been a comfort. Even the one Yohji ruined when he tried to whittle.

:You need a great deal more training before you carry a weapon in my presence.: "Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen. We'll leave the rest of the floor for the show." The High Lord smiled at Ken. "We have recordings of several recent Earth games, or, if you prefer, we can have dancers or musicians."

"Eat, drink and be merry..." Ken muttered. He flashed a smile. "A game would be great as a start," he added in a normal voice.

...for tomorrow we may die. Ran didn't like the direction that led. Thinking's not my job.

:You'll never get anywhere if you don't think.:

Maybe I don't want to think. Ran wished he had better control of his thoughts. He pushed Ken's chair toward the cushions.

"Do you use stools so everybody has to stay awake?" Ken asked as he and Ran got him out of the chair and onto the cushions.

Going the other way is going to be difficult. Ran shrugged mentally. We'll manage somehow. He started to move the wheelchair out of the way only to have one of the servants take it from him.

The High Lord laughed. "A useful side effect. I inherited the custom, and I never inquired."

Inherited from whom? Ran followed Ken to the cushions, feeling vaguely relieved at moving to a slightly more defensible space. Though, if I have to defend it, we're thoroughly screwed.

Later, after they'd watched almost half of a game that Ken swore was exciting, the High Lord lifted his cup. "Tradition dictates that you should drink when I do." He smiled. "My capacity's probably larger than yours, so I suggest sipping."

Ran looked at his own cup. He lifted it and sniffed the contents. Strong. He felt a little dizzy just from the scent. Very strong.

Ken picked up his cup as well. "I don't think I want to face tomorrow hungover." He raised his eyebrows, keeping his eyes fixed on the High Lord's face as he set the cup back down. "I'm not sworn yet."

What the hell are you thinking? Are you thinking? At all? Ran clenched one hand on the cup and the other in his clothing.

The High Lord looked more amused than anything. "You won't drink with me after, either." He sipped.

Ran hesitated, trying to read Ken well enough to figure out what he should do.

Ken continued looking at the High Lord but reached back to put a hand on Ran's arm. "Ran is mine. No matter what Precognitive Second Crawford may say. What applies to me applies to him."

There was silence for long enough to make Ran wonder if Ken had misjudged. Then the High Lord saluted them with his cup. "He is Crawford's if you fail."

Ken shrugged, and the silence stretched again.

Ran wasn't fool enough to assume that all or even most of the conversation was occurring out loud. I just wish I had something to keep me busy while they're...doing whatever they're doing. Something other than the game.

:Negotiations, young man. Your friend bargains and renegotiates. I've made him some promises better not heard by anyone's spies.: "I can call the musicians if you'd like."

Ran made a tiny gesture of negation. More people is bad. Unless there's a reason they should come back--

:Only if they'd amuse you. We will have dancers later, but that's for another reason.: The High Lord gestured toward the tray of finger food. "Help yourselves. This is supposed to be pleasurable for you."

Too much of the eat, drink and be merry here for my taste. Ran obediently reached for something that looked as if it might contain vegetation. He stopped, wondering if he ought to wait for Ken to move first. Since I belong to him. He pushed aside resentment at the notion. Better him than Crawford, and really, I belong to Omi.

The High Lord cleared his throat. "Potential Hidaka, you haven't told him anything, have you?" He set down his cup. "If you don't, I will."

Ken frowned.

Ran tried to interpret the frown. I spent too long trying not to know what that sort of thing meant. It could be, 'Damn, I have to run in the rain, and I don't have any more clean socks,' or it could be, 'Sorry, Ran. I don't know how to tell you this, but...'

Ken fidgeted. "There's no good way to say it," he complained. He turned to look at Ran. "You have to promise not to tell Omi." He rolled his shoulders then rubbed the back of his neck. "Not until after, anyway. It would only upset him."

Ran looked around. The guards, he decided, probably weren't reporting to Crawford. "Um..."

:I'm not particularly concerned about anything getting back to your brother-in-law just now. No one else is likely to think anything about your supposedly comatose friend.:

Ran sighed. "Why not? He can't give me extra shifts right now." On either job.

"That's not exactly a promise." Ken studied Ran's face. "He can't do anything, so I don't want him to worry." He grinned. "It'll all be fine anyway."

That's fake. If I can tell... "Ken, I--" Ran wasn't really sure where that could go, so he didn't bother trying. "Please tell me."


Even Ran recognized blatant stalling. He poked Ken in the ribs. "Now!"

Ken pushed Ran's hand away. "It's like this... The whole power activation thing is pretty routine. That's not dangerous, not a big deal. I'll sleep for a while..." He shot a glare at the High Lord. "Okay. Two weeks isn't that long, really." He rubbed the back of his head. "I just kind of sort of left out the part where precognition is hugely dangerous."

"Your brother-in-law has walked the edges of madness all his life," the High Lord said. He shrugged one shoulder. "It's rare to find a precognitive above the third tier who can perceive the present, let alone one who can hold a coherent conversation and make plans."

The glance Ken gave the High Lord definitely looked angry, and Ran guessed that Ken had planned to soften the truth considerably more. Aya's married to Crawford. Ran reached for his anger, for his need to protect his sister. It wasn't there. "Ken..." He searched for the right words. "Is this a good idea?" You must think so, right? You have answers, don't you?

"For many reasons." Ken nodded firmly. He spread his hands. "The Taisken are coming to Earth. This protects us, gives us a guaranteed place. It lets us have choices."

By 'us,' he means the team. Can he protect Yohji? Ran doubted that even as he hoped it might be true.

"I can't have the possibility and not try," Ken went on.

Ran nodded, not so much agreeing with Ken's argument as acknowledging that Ken, being Ken, couldn't do anything else. He looked at his hands. None of my questions work with an audience. They're too pathetic, too helpless.

:Your pride amazes me. Of course, if you did take him by the shoulders and shake him, my guards would step in. Not that I wouldn't understand the impulse. He's gambling for high stakes and with poor odds. I believe he will win, but my precognition is barely fifth tier.:

Ran looked at the High Lord. "He shouldn't be making the attempt for free."

Ken laughed. He picked up his cup, took a swallow then made a face. "That's vile. I'm not doing it for free. I'll still See even if I'm crazy. I'll be useful to other people, more useful to some even."

"Not to me." The High Lord raised a hand and a servant came from the far wall to place new cups beside each of the three men. "I think you'll make an...interesting addition to my court. The entrenched interests are already off balance due to Crawford and Naoe. Whether you back them or play your own games, you'll alter many calculations."

Ran tried to imagine Ken playing political games and felt his brain break a little. To distract himself, he looked into his new cup. It looks like water.

"It is water." The High Lord pushed his old cup aside. "Potential Hidaka feels strongly that he should not be drinking alcohol. Minding his instincts seems wise."

Ken twitched slightly. "It's not intentional! I don't mean to automatically go against my...feelings."

Ah, the High Lord said something. "You...feel you shouldn't do something and then do it anyway?" Ran wanted to be sure he understood.

"Sometimes." Ken looked at the far wall. "Mostly when I can't figure out why the feeling isn't crazy or when it's against what I'm hoping."

Kase. More than once, I expect. Ran took a healthy swallow of his own water in order to avoid having to say anything. He found himself longing for tea, for the familiar odor and comforting warmth of it. I wonder if the High Lord has ever seen a proper tea ceremony?

:No, but I shall have to. Your memories make it seem something I'd appreciate.:

Ran smiled, suddenly feeling a little better about the prospect of this man conquering the Earth. He might not be a complete barbarian.

:By my standards, everyone on your planet is a barbarian. I believe that, in every language I've ever learned, the term merely means 'weird people who don't do things the way I do.':

One of the servants left the room.

"I do hope that, when you See more definitely, you'll pay better attention." There was the tiniest bit of reproof in the High Lord's voice.

"I expect to." Ken squared his shoulders and set his jaw.

"In answer to your wondering about what Potential Hidaka gets for trying," the High Lord said, "he gets an option on you. He gets my protection for your Omi, at least as far as I can help. He gets a promise that I'll take care of Naoe's toy when Naoe loses interest." :I won't interfere to keep the three of you here. I won't stop Crawford or Naoe from hunting you if you escape, but I won't divert resources to assist in the search, not unless you cause me problems. If you manage to escape, stay out of my people's way. Hidaka will only be able to protect you so far.:

Ran nodded jerkily, storing the High Lord's private words for later consideration. I'll be sharing them with Omi eventually. He cleared his throat. "When will we know? If Ken's okay, I mean."

"Two weeks," Ken said. He slumped a little. "Keep Omi from worrying for that long, please."

Ran doubted it was possible. Two weeks will be a long time for the rest of us. He tried not to think of Yohji. "I'll do my best."

"I'll also give you this-- I've summoned teachers." The High Lord seemed to be watching the door. "Mr. Fujimiya needs to learn to shield." He glanced at Ran. "It won't keep a determined telepath out of your head, not a powerful one, but it will teach you to keep casual thoughts private and to know when someone is...rummaging. Naoe's Yohji-kun needs to learn more than that." He tapped one finger on the table.

Ran saw the guards twitch just a little as the finger hit the table. Absolute power... He closed his eyes for a second and let himself think about being able to keep Schuldig out. I won't give Omi away. He sighed. "It's been like not thinking of the horse's tail-- Completely possible as long as I don't remember that I need to do it. Otherwise..." He didn't think he had to finish the thought.

Ken took a deep breath. "That helps, too."

:Mr. Fujimiya's teacher will also be my official observer while you're...incapacitated, Potential Hidaka.:

Ran was a little surprised to be included in the thought, but he was glad enough of the information. An observer is good. I don't trust anybody who works for Crawford.

:Unofficially-- I'm going to offer you companionship for the night. Hesitate as you will but do not say no. I'll make you a gift of two slaves. They'll be your real protection while you're unconscious. They won't be distracted by needing to teach. I hope, too, that you'll make them the eventual start of your house. They will level things a little for you when you come to my court. You'll have someone, apart from Crawford, to advise you.:

Ran set his face, holding himself thoroughly still as he tried to imagine Ken of all people owning slaves. He pushed all of his thoughts back and down. I don't have time for that now.

Ken's response never came because at that moment the servant who'd left earlier returned, carrying a tray.

Ran's heart clenched for an entirely new reason. The tea set on the tray looked exactly like the one his family used to use every day. As the servant came closer, Ran could see that it was newer, that it had few of the relics of frequent use that had made his father remark regularly that they ought to buy a new set, one with no cracks or chips. He turned his face away. He was certain he'd managed not to show his feelings, but he didn't want to take chances.

"Tea!" Ken sounded pleased. "I haven't had proper tea in forever. I didn't think they made it here."

"I believe Telekinetic First Naoe and Consort Precognitive Second Crawford both enjoy the beverage."

I'm surprised he didn't add 'idiot' to that. Ken should have thought. Ran blinked, making sure his eyes were clear. He took advantage of the fuss over pouring to say to Ken, "Are you sure about all of this, Ken?" I don't know what we could do, but I'm sure there's something. There has to be, right?

"I'm sure." Ken gave Ran a smile full of serene confidence. "I don't play to lose, you know."

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Back to Part 17.
On to Part 19.