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On to Part 21.

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: 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, Side B 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. Off screen Ken/OMC.

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 8 November 2012

Thanks to Daegaer, Gemais and Leorising for beta reading 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 20

Omi rubbed his face. "So Ken has people watching him? People who aren't Schwarz?"

Ran nodded. "Two...slaves." Do you need to know more? "Very attractive, very...physically fit slaves. Officially, they're supposed to be doing all the non-medical care he needs while he's unconscious. That's so they can be with him all the time. If he...doesn't come through, they go back to the High Lord. If he does, they're his--" Ran made a face, wishing there were easier terms for this. "--bodyguards, concubines, whatever he wants."

"Did Ken have sex with them?"

Ran nodded once, sharply. He should have found another way. I don't know what but something.

Omi looked like he'd bitten into something sour. "Do you trust them?"

Of course not. Ran blinked twice. "They're not Weiss."

Omi smiled as if Ran had answered a difficult question. He nodded. "Apart from that."

"I think the High Lord trusts them and that he wants Ken." Ran shrugged. "All that wasn't for me, and it wasn't for Crawford, either." There's no point deceiving us, and the High Lord is real enough. Which means that everything else is real. "They're both telepaths, both combat trained."

"Loyal to the High Lord?"

And not to Ken? "Nobody showed me their dossiers." I want to see them, too. "All I've got is what they bothered to tell me. I think they talked a lot telepathically."

"Yes. You said that earlier." Omi tapped his fingers on his knee. "Given everything-- Were you actually in the room when Ken...had sex?"

Ran felt his face heat. He fixed his eyes on the door to Omi's room and shrugged. "The next room." I'd have preferred coming back here. But then Ken would have been alone... in the morning. "He wanted a chance to talk. He had... advice for me."

Omi winced. "How blunt was he?"

I'd hate to think he could be blunter. Ran shrugged. "Compared to what?" Let it go. Please.

Omi made a grumbling sound deep in his throat. "He's never had much patience for you."

"It's not needed." I'm strong enough for whatever we're going to do.

Omi made a sound that might have been agreement. He didn't say anything for a while. Eventually he sighed. "Did the High Lord say more?"

Ran went through the rest of that part of the evening in his head. "He asked questions about the game. He commented on the food. He offered different...slaves, talking about their--" He grimaced. "That part was unpleasant. We knew which ones Ken was supposed to pick, but we had to look at several others." I felt filthy. "Just before we left, the High Lord propositioned me. Ken didn't let me answer."

Ran could tell that Omi was considering asking for details. It's long. I'm tired, and there's so much more to talk about.

Omi hesitated. He studied Ran for nearly a minute then looked away. He didn't say anything. He frowned then nodded sharply. "Tell me about Ken. We'll come back to the High Lord later. I...need to know about Ken."

Ran found himself staring at Omi. That's...unexpected. He's letting me off the hook. He schooled his expression into neutrality before Omi looked at him again. "I'm not sure where to start."

"Where did you go when you left the High Lord?"

"Guest quarters. Fancy guest quarters." Ran picked at the fabric covering his left knee. "Big bath. Big bed. Cushions for lounging." He cleared his throat. "Wet bar--"

"Have a drink, Ran. You look like you could use it." Ken waved his hand at a corner of the room. "They told me there was alcohol in the wall over there."

Aut, the female slave, stepped between Ran and the corner. She bowed to Ken, her long, straight, blond hair slipping over one shoulder to hang toward the floor. "It's our place to serve." She pushed her hair back over her shoulder as she straightened. She stood about a hundred and eighty centimeters and was built like a dancer. Her features were sharp.

Ran just kept himself from stepping back. Don't be stupid. She's harmless. No. She's a bodyguard. She's not harmless. She's.... That hair can't be safe for combat. He narrowed his eyes, thinking about how he'd take her down if he had to. She shouldn't be here. Neither should he. He glanced at Pel, the male slave, to see him echoing Aut's bow.

Pel was several centimeters taller than Aut. His skin was considerably darker than hers, and his head was shaved. He was muscular, with broad shoulders. His eyes were dark and wary. He didn't seem to have Aut's self confidence.

Has he ever been in a real fight? I'll buy that he's trained, but has he ever used it? Ran frowned and looked from Pel to Aut and back again. She's a first tier telepath, and he's a second. How can we trust them? What choice do we have?

Ken inclined his head. "Whatever's proper." He didn't sound like he much cared. "No alcohol for me, but some juice would be nice. For my friend-- See what's there that's strong and then cut it so he can't taste the alcohol."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Ran protested. Alcohol is a bad idea. I can't watch your back if I drink. "I need to be alert."

"We're safe in this room." Ken flicked his fingers in Weiss' signal for silence, and Ran shut his mouth sharply, remembering that Ken was still in charge of the mission. "You're wound tighter than Yohji's wire. I've got things to say to you, and I'm still hoping to enjoy the rest of tonight."

Ran blinked, hung up on Ken's comment about enjoying the night. There's nothing to enjoy. He opened his mouth then hesitated. This might be his last night awake and sane. Whatever he thinks is enjoyable about being stuck in this room with me and-- and them, I shouldn't take it from him. "I'd still rather not risk alcohol."

"It'll make doing what you have to do easier, Ran." Ken's smile was stiff enough that Ran was sure it was forced.

What are you expecting me to do? "Ken--" Ran moved his fingers in one of Weiss' signals. I never thought I'd be asking Ken for orders. His eyes darted to Aut and then to Pel. And they can read our minds. Why are we bothering with signals?

Ken had Pel help him sit down on a blue, upholstered lump that looked like part of some child's pillow fort then took a glass from Aut. "You miss a lot." He sipped his drink and nodded approval. He looked up and met Ran's eyes. "That's a luxury you can't afford now. The rest of us have carried you on it for years, but none of us can any more."

Ran let his legs fold so that he too sat. He sank into the cushion, tilting a little as one part of it proved softer than the rest. "I carry my weight." I'm good at being Weiss. Better at being Weiss than at being a brother, it seems. Just tell me what to do.

"On missions, yes, at least during the lethal parts. You kind of suck at the parts that require talking to people." Ken snorted. "And people call me impatient." He pointed a finger at Ran. "Right now, you ought to be cosying up to Crawford by making your sister as happy as possible. You ought to be making allies by getting to know other people here. You're not utterly isolated."

"Do you think I haven't tried?" Ran demanded. He met Ken's eyes for a long moment then looked away only to find his gaze landing on Pel's bare feet and smoothly muscular legs. He twitched and fixed his gaze on his own hands. "Crawford hates me. He thinks it's fun to torture me."

"Then play on that. It's a weakness. You can't afford pride. Omi's depending on you." Ken snapped his fingers to get Ran's attention then pointed behind him.

Aut bowed to Ran and offered him a glass of red brown liquid that almost seemed to glow. Her hair slid over her shoulder to hang down next to the glass.

"Thank you," Ran said as he took the glass. He sniffed the contents and considered taking a sip. No. I need my head clear. He looked around the room again. If Ken told them to make me drink, would they? Could they? Would he? He gave Ken his attention again. "I know, but it isn't as easy as you're making it sound."

"I never said it was easy. Crawford's smart, but so are you." Ken waved a hand in Ran's direction. "You don't have to drink it, but I think we'll all find tonight easier if you do." He stood up carefully. He didn't quite put weight on his bad leg. "There's supposed to be a cane around here somewhere." His feet sank into thick carpet, and he wriggled his toes.

Pel handed Ken a metal cane decorated with black vines.

"I won't be much good if I'm drunk." Ran sniffed the drink again. "Why am I here?"

Ken stretched. "We should get out of the formal wear at the very least. There's a decent sized bath, and my clothes should fit you well enough."

Ran winced as Ken casually discarded clothing that would have paid a month's hospital bills. His hand tightened on his glass. "Ken--"

"I have one night, Ran. That's why."

Ran tried his drink. It was fruity without being overly sweet. The aftertaste was sharp and alcoholic enough to make his throat contract. "Oh."

"I'd love a chance to run, but the doctors said no. My leg won't be up to that until some time tomorrow or the day after. I'll settle for a bath, a friend and--" Ken managed a grin. "--some sweaty sex." He gave appreciative looks to Aut and Pel in turn.

Ran dropped his drink.

Pel was there in an instant, cleaning up the mess.

He can't-- "Sex with whom?" Ran choked a little on the words.

Ken's face set in an expression Ran couldn't interpret. "They're here." He shrugged. "I'm not about to insult the High Lord."

Insult? "It's not about him." How can you even think of it? They don't have a choice.

Ken studied Ran for a moment then shrugged. "They're a gift from a man who owns multiple star systems. From a man who owns us right now." He turned and walked toward one of the doors. "I'm going to wash and then soak."

Aut pressed another glass into Ran's hands.

Ken wouldn't-- Ken's not--- He's a good guy. Ran lifted his glass and drank without letting himself think about it. He closed his eyes for a second. Yohji would and has done that for missions. Ken, though-- I never thought Ken would. There are lines. He opened his eyes and stood up. "Please hold this," he said to Aut, handing her his glass. Once she'd taken it, he started to undress. It's still Ken's mission. Maybe he can explain. Maybe I can talk him out of it.

Stripping completely under Aut's steady gaze was one of the hardest things Ran had done recently. She smiled at him when he glanced her way, and he looked away quickly. She's attractive in a foreign way. He allowed himself a frown. I'm not going to think of her that way. I can't save the victims, but I'm not going to become worse than I already am. Killing's one thing.

He looked from Aut to Pel then said, "The clothes are expensive. Please pick up Ken's." Lacking any way to hang up the clothes, he folded his own, carefully not watching as Pel copied his movements to fold Ken's. That done, Ran took a deep breath and went after Ken.

The bathing room was tiled in brown, shaded and patterned to look like tree bark. Ken was in the middle of scrubbing his legs. He looked up as Ran walked in. He grinned. "I thought you'd take a little longer."

"It's still a mission." I can do almost anything for a mission. Really. "And I need to know more." You're going to be unconscious for two weeks. Yohji is Naoe's toy. Omi is pretending to be comatose. "I still don't like it."

Ken rinsed his legs and moved carefully to the bath. "You don't have to like any of it. You just have to adapt."

Ran sat on the stool Ken had vacated and started washing himself. "I'm surprised." This bath is very-- It's very home. I wish I had the word for home. "I thought you cared more about-- about keeping yourself than this." The bath must be Naoe's influence. Or maybe the High Lord's people favor baths like this, too, but it looks very like home, just much bigger.

Ken laughed. There was a wildness and a darkness in the sound that disturbed Ran. "Keeping myself? I gave myself up a long time ago, when I joined Kritiker, actually. At least this time I'm getting something out of it. With luck, they and I can give each other something that's a start. If this works, we're going to have years, decades maybe, of working together."

Ran scrubbed just a little harder than necessary. Who are you? You're not Ken. Wanting to change the subject, he asked, "Why wouldn't you let me answer the High Lord?"

Ken sighed and sank lower in the bath. "Because you might need to say yes later. It's.... If I succeed, you and Omi can leave Crawford and Naoe and swear to me. I won't be able to help Yohji, not right away, but I can help you. If I fail.... Not that I'm going to, but.... If I do, the High Lord offered you an education as your fee. You wouldn't enjoy the bargain-- He likes inflicting pain-- but you could do it, secure his patronage and get yourself and Omi away from Crawford."

Ran had frozen midway through Ken's carefully neutral words. I almost said yes, just because Crawford said to say no. He closed his eyes for a second. I still might have to say yes. Can I? Of course I can. "When did you start making plans like that?" Ken doesn't scheme. He doesn't have layers of contingencies. He... He shook his head. "You sound like Omi." He couldn't quite keep it from sounding accusing.

"I learned from the best." Ken kept his eyes on the wall. "I wish my implanted vocabulary stretched to profanity. That or that you had Japanese again."

"You miss swearing that much?"

"It's satisfying. Plus, it gets your attention."

"You have my attention." I'm not stupid. Ran rinsed off.

Ken ran his fingers through his hair. "I've only got tonight, and I need to be sure you understand."

Having nothing to say, Ran remained silent. He could feel Ken's eyes on him as he finished washing. As he stood to join Ken in the bath, he asked, "Will they be joining us?"

Ken shook his head. "I asked them not to."

When-- Telepaths. Right. They could have said anything, and I wouldn't know. Unwilling to admit to an additional layer of discomfort at that realization, Ran lowered himself into the water.

"We're not exactly friends, are we? You never wanted friends." Ken didn't exactly watch Ran entering the tub.

Ran shook his head. "I couldn't afford friends."

Ken snorted and made a vulgar gesture. "Your sister woke up nearly three years ago. You're just set in your ways. The rest of us have been waiting for you, and the separation is a weakness the team can't afford any longer."

I don't want this. I'm loyal to the team. If I go any deeper, I'll drown. Ran shook his head. "Strong feelings are a weakness for the team."

Ken snapped out a word that Ran could only assume was a curse. "Get your head out of your butt! You've got to start pulling your weight. I'm about to give a binding oath to the High Lord. I'll mean it when I do. That puts him and his interests before Weiss. You need to fill in the hole when I'm gone. That means admitting that you care and that Omi and Yohji care for you."

"I don't see what good that will do."

Ken looked like he wanted to bang his head against something. "That's why we're having this talk. Omi won't do it, so I'm going to." He stabbed a finger at Ran's chest. "You're part of Weiss. It's not temporary."

Ran looked away. "I know. It's forever."

"You say it like that's a bad thing." Ken's finger continued to rest on Ran's chest.

"We're all damaged. We're all damned." I don't wish that on anyone, even if it's sometimes better not to be there alone.

"With that attitude, I'm surprised you haven't self-destructed. No--" Ken held up a hand, forestalling any words from Ran. "I don't care. What matters is that you're the uninjured member of the team. Yohji's fighting for survival, and it's got to have damaged him. Omi's physically weak from pretending to be catatonic. You have got to step up. Do whatever it takes to claw any advantage from your situation. Don't let Crawford win."

Is that what I've been doing? But I can't-- Aya-- But Weiss-- Ran shivered in spite of the heat.

"You're nearly dead inside, and it would kill Omi to lose you, too." Ken ran his wet hand through his hair again. "I wish I'd given you some hard pushes back when it wasn't life and death, but you were functioning well enough."

I have no idea what you want. "I'll...try." I want to. You said they need me. I think I need to be needed, and Aya doesn't need me any more.

"You'll do better than that. Omi and Yohji both care about you and about what you think." Ken had started glaring somewhere along the way, and his current expression promised violence.

Why? "What am I supposed to do?" If you spell it out, I'll do it.

Ken turned his glare on the wall, and for a moment, Ran expected him to punch it. Ken sighed and let his hand fall into the water. "Be gentle with them. Yohji's stronger than he looks and smarter, but...." He waved a hand as if to encompass everything then shrugged. "Omi isn't quite as strong as he'd like to be, and he can't save all of us this time." He bit his lip and looked away. "Barring the High Lord, he's probably the most dangerous man either of us have met, but he's not invulnerable."

"I'll remember." Ran wasn't sure he would, but he guessed that that was what Ken needed to hear. "I'm sorry I'm not one of them. They'd be better company for--" He shook his head, not sure what to say that wouldn't sound gloomy.

Ken laughed sharply. "You'll do. You're not trying to talk me out of it, and that's something. You're not even worried."

Ran inhaled sharply. "Yes. I am. I just don't-- Just because I'm not nagging or hovering-- You know more about it than I do."

This time, Ken's laughter sounded more genuine. "You trust me, is that it?" He leaned back, looking up at the ceiling. "I'm not sure you should. If-- Before the High Lord made his 'gift,' I was planning to proposition you. Not because I'm lusting wildly after you but because you were here and at least possible. I thought you might, just as comrades, given tomorrow."

"I might have." Ran was sure that was the right thing to say. He did his best to keep his confusion over the turn in the conversation off his face. Maybe I shouldn't have set down that drink. It might make Ken make more sense. Maybe I should have said yes. Then he wouldn't-- Ken is better than sex with slaves. He cleared his throat. "I still could."

"I'm going to have to do it eventually," Ken's voice sounded distant. "Nothing can save me from that. Having the High Lord view me as a barbarian-- which he does-- is bad enough. Having him view me as a rude barbarian who's not even trying to adapt could be lethal, no matter how useful I am. He's not the only power in his court, and there's a reason Naoe is in semi-seclusion here."

Ran blinked. He frowned then made a rapid decision. "You're going to have to tell me things like that. Omi will want to know. It might keep him busy for a while." I'm dreading talking to Omi. He's going to want to kill Ken, and Ken won't be available.

Ken shook his head. "Tonight isn't about Omi. It's about friends and joy and me watching you get drunk."

Ran leveled a glare of his own. "You conveniently don't have to face him for two weeks."

"Fine, but there has to be fun, too. You're not getting out of that."

"Fun." Omi sounded as though he was testing the word out. "Would you say that you had fun?"

Ran rubbed the side of his face. The tea had helped. He was still exhausted, but his mouth no longer felt like he'd been eating mud. The headache had receded. "I suppose. I mean, Ken seemed to enjoy himself, and I think he wanted me to enjoy myself."

"That's something, I suppose." Omi took a deep breath. "I wouldn't have tried to stop him," he said. "Ken must know what he's doing." His hands were clenched on his legs.

Liar. Ran studied Omi. He was more than a little relieved that Omi wasn't showing anger, but he couldn't believe Omi wasn't angry. "He seemed to," Ran said. "He was even thinking about the politics. He seemed to-- No. He doesn't understand everything. He knows the starting points. That was part of the point of the... bodyguards. They know how things work."

"Yes. The bodyguards." Omi flattened his hands against his legs. "Tell me more about them. You must know at least a little more."

We have no choice but to trust them. What will reassure you? "I think-- I got the impression from what the High Lord said that Ken's worried about Crawford trying to make sure Ken's insane, that it wouldn't be hard for someone like Schuldig to make it happen. Aut and Pel are guards for Ken's mind more than for his body. Both of them are stronger than Schuldig." Ran couldn't help a little shudder at that thought. Schuldig is bad enough. Schuldig stronger doesn't bear thinking about. "I got the impression they've both done this sort of thing before." But nobody said that. They could be amateurs, and where would that leave Ken?

"How can anyone trust slaves with this sort of thing? Why wouldn't they sabotage Ken?" Omi's questions echoed Ran's own doubts.

Ran poured himself more tea. "I can't imagine Ken keeping them as slaves." Assuming I know anything about Ken. I'm not sure I do any more. "There's also--" Ran took a deep breath. This was the High Lord's logic, and Ran wasn't sure he agreed. "Apparently they're in love with each other. They'll do a lot for a person who lets them be together."

The look Omi fastened on Ran made Ran think Omi didn't buy it either. "That seems easy to say, Ran."

Ran set down his cup and spread his hands wide. "I only know what the High Lord said. If it helps any, I do think he was courting Ken. Ken being happy and safe matters. He wouldn't have spent hours watching a sport he knows nothing about, drinking tea with us and hand picking slaves to go with Ken for it all to be a trap." The words came out reluctantly, but Ran thought he was right. "Last night, all of it, was in Ken's honor. That means something."

After a long moment, Omi nodded.

What else do I know about them? Oh, yes. "Aut used to be a spy working for one of the other High Lords. She was successful at winning this High Lord's trust, but the High Lord she was really serving lost a war with still a third High Lord and was captured. After news of that came through, Aut turned herself in. Apparently, she was sure she'd be caught eventually and thought that turning herself in would decrease her punishment."

"Wonderful. So she's a traitor, too?" Now Omi did look angry.

I should have known he wouldn't like that. "The High Lord she served is either dead or a prisoner. That part wasn't clear. I think this High Lord doesn't know. He seemed to think that Aut had no one left to serve but him."

Omi growled.

There's nothing we can do about it. Ran decided to continue as if Omi weren't angry. "I understood less about Pel's history. I think he was genetically engineered and trained in childhood to be a slave. That's hugely illegal here. The High Lord sounded angry just mentioning it." Anger in a mental voice, particularly one as powerful as the High Lord's, was frightening. It had taken all of Ran's self control not to flinch in the face of it. "The people doing it were powerful. After the High Lord found out about the whole thing, he took the rescued slaves into his household to be trained how not to be slaves. Aut was assigned to teach them physical self defense. That's when Pel fell in love with her. He chose to be a slave rather than leave her."

Omi's eyes had narrowed gradually as Ran spoke. He opened his mouth then closed it and shook his head.

I had no words either. Especially since the High Lord was only including me in the conversation as a courtesy to Ken.

After a long moment, Omi said, "And we're supposed to trust that?"

"I don't see that we have any choice." Ran set his jaw. What do you want me to do about it? If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them. "Nobody asked us. Nobody's going to ask us." Not even Ken. His fingers curled in until his fingernails found flesh. Yelling at Omi won't help.

Omi wilted. "You're right, Ran."

He sounds surprised. That's-- not very complimentary. "We-- Ken and I-- didn't really talk any more, not about anything that matters. He wanted to reminisce, and he had Aut keep refilling my glass. He meant it about wanting to get me drunk."

Omi smiled faintly. "That sounds like Ken."

"It was--" Difficult. Shameful. The only thing I could do. "--embarrassing." Ran looked at his hands. "After a certain point, everything's a bit fuzzy." He tried to look as miserably sick as he'd felt when he first returned to the apartment. "I tried to remember because I knew you'd want the report, but I may have lost details."

"That happens." Omi made a dismissive gesture. "Tell me about Ken this morning. My other questions can wait."

He shouldn't wait. He's being kind? Yes. He's trying to take care of me. I shouldn't-- No. Let him. It was a bad night. "Crawford came for us. I'm not sure what time it was. I think it was early. We hadn't had much sleep. Ken made him wait while he showered. They didn't want Ken to eat anything, so we didn't have breakfast. Once Ken was dressed, the five of us went to a hospital room. It looked like the same one Ken was in before, but I can't be sure. They may have a dozen like that.

"There were three people there, doctors of some sort, I suppose, or nurses or something. They had Ken change clothes. He hugged me and said, 'See you on the other side.' Then he lay down, and they put an i.v. in him. I don't know what was in it, but he just kind of went to sleep." Ran looked at the wall behind Omi, seeing Ken's still form once again. It was wrong. Ken should be moving. "Then Crawford had someone bring me back here." And here we are. All we can do is wait.

Omi sighed. "Ken hasn't left us many choices."

Ken gave up all his choices. This is one big gamble. We-- Omi and I-- still have options. I don't like any of them, but that doesn't mean they're not there. Ran shrugged.

"I think I'm going to have to wake up officially. Schuldig will be harder to deal with if he thinks I'm awake, but the positives outweigh the negatives." Omi stood up and stretched. "They still haven't repaired the monitoring devices in here, so we don't need to make a production of it. We just have to decide when it happens."

"Not while I was gone. You'd have tried to get out, and the guards would have noticed." Ran looked at Omi. "Should I ask to have a doctor look at you? If you were really-- Well, I would have insisted all along."

Omi grimaced. "If you had, they might have tried a telepath other than Schuldig, somebody capable of doing more than breaking minds. Someone like that would have been harder to fool. They would have wanted to help, so they would have kept looking."

Ran nodded. Not that I understand how you fooled Schuldig. He loves misery, so he'd have kept poking at things. He scrubbed his face.

Omi stood up, crossed the room and put a hand on Ran's shoulder. He squeezed. "You did well, Ran."

"I didn't talk him out of it." I didn't even try.

Omi patted Ran's shoulder. "I doubt any of us could. When Ken makes up his mind to do something, he doesn't budge. Get some rest. I'll probably have more questions later." He turned and walked back to his seat.

You have them now. You're just being kind. Ran looked at his hands, wondering what to do next. He needs to know. She told me a lot, and it says more about Aut. Yes, but it says a lot about me. Ken didn't approve. Will Omi understand? There're some parts of me I'm not ready to give up. After a long pause, he looked up at Omi. "I did have a conversation with Aut. It was-- It was while Ken and Pel the other room." He suspected he'd reddened and hated that weakness. "She answered some questions. I think it's important."

Omi hesitated, obviously thinking that he'd just told Ran to rest. Then he leaned forward. "Tell me."

Ran found himself staring at Aut. He opened his mouth then closed it as nothing occurred to him to say. His field of vision had narrowed gradually as he'd had more alcohol, and now, she was all he could see.

She regarded him, unblinking, her green eyes looking impossibly wide.

"Put the cane over there." Ken's voice was muffled by the closed door. "I think I can reach it if I need it."

Great. I'm going to hear everything. Ran felt his face heat. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to think about it. It shouldn't be happening. He couldn't read Aut's expression. What must she think? That's her lover in there with Ken. Isn't she upset?

Aut stood. "Let me get you some water. If you don't hydrate, you'll regret it in the morning." Her tone was as calm as if nothing unusual were happening.

"No," Ken said. "I'm fine. Well, I guess you can fold my clothes."

Maybe this isn't new to her. Ran blinked, trying to focus on her as she picked up his glass then crossed the room to the sink. "Water sounds good." He spoke very deliberately, afraid that he'd slur the words. People do that, right? He watched her as closely as he could. She moves like a killer. I wonder if Ken has thought about that?

Aut filled the glass, turned and stood facing Ran. //Acquit me of stupidity, at least. As far as the High Lord is concerned, Potential Hidaka is worth a hundred of me or Pel, of both of us together, for that matter.//

Ran started and began to slip sideways off his cushion. He put out an arm to steady himself, and his hand sank deep into the padding. He tilted and found himself suddenly on the floor. Why do they stack these things like that? He blinked at Aut. She said something I need to answer. Right. "That doesn't mean Ken has thought it all through." He doesn't always, and this is a big deal.

"My shoulders are tight," Ken said, "and my leg's been cramping off and on all day."

Aut walked over and offered her hand to Ran.

He stared at it for a moment then took it and let her help him to his feet. He swayed a little as he stood. Looking down, he couldn't tell how far away the floor was. I better not try to walk. Except I need to empty my bladder. He flushed as he realized that Aut was probably listening to all his thoughts.

She handed him the water, and he drank it down rapidly. He handed the glass back to her and felt relieved that he hadn't dropped it. He started to shuffle toward the toilet. He didn't dare raise his feet for fear that the floor wouldn't be where he expected it to be.

"Ah! Yes! Right there!" The sound of Ken's voice made Ran jump. What are they doing in there?

Aut watched Ran go. Once, she moved as if to take his arm, and he turned the full force of his glare on her.

I can walk by myself. He might be drunk and embarrassing himself, but he could maintain some dignity. He used the toilet without incident. Then as he turned to leave the room, he considered the possibility that he might need to vomit. He didn't feel sick, but he knew that was something people did when they got drunk enough. I'm not sure I can make it back here, and I can't imagine vomiting out there. It'd get all over the cushions and the rug and everything. He looked at his hands. I could stick a finger down my throat. That might bring it all up.

//Don't do that. It would feel terrible, and it's not necessary. You haven't had that much to drink.//

Get out of my head! Ran gave a little shriek and grabbed the sink to keep from falling over. He felt himself go red. No way Ken didn't hear that.

"Ran? You okay?" Ken sounded concerned.

"I'm fine!" Ran raised his voice to be sure Ken heard him. He took a moment to splash water on his face. It didn't help. He wiped his hands across his face, scraping off moisture, then dried his hands on the bottom of his sweatshirt. I hate this. I'm drunk. Shouldn't I be happy? It seemed unfair that he'd lost so much of his physical coordination without feeling better. It was better when Ken was talking. He talked about good times.

I could just stay in here. That would avoid the whole issue. He leaned his forehead against the door. The door felt cool against his skin, and he wondered if it was really wood. His hand rested on the latch as he tried to think of any reason why he should open the door.

After a few minutes, Ken's voice came through the door again. "Ran, I'm going to want the toilet, and there are much more comfortable places to sleep."

Ran thought Ken sounded irritated and couldn't think why. He sighed and opened the door. He blinked.

Aut knelt beside a row of cushions arranged like a pallet. She indicated the cushions with the sweep of one hand. "For you," she said, quietly. "I thought you might like a massage."

Ran blinked again. Aut was still there. He took a step backward. "No," he said. "No. I don't want you touching me." I'm not going to touch you. No matter what Ken says.

Aut blew out a breath, making several strands of her hair flutter. "If that's what you want. You should lie down anyway. It's only a few hours until morning."

Ran hesitated. There's something wrong with that but what? He took one hesitant step forward then another. Soon, he was folding himself down on the cushions. He just managed to keep his descent controlled. He didn't lie down. Instead, he got to eye level with Aut and just looked at her. "I don't get it," he said after he'd looked at her for a few seconds.

Laughter-- Ken's laughter, Ran thought-- wafted through the door. Ran flinched then forced himself still. He kept his eyes on Aut.

She gave him an even stare. "I just want to please you." She spread her hands, palms up, and shrugged. "Potential Hidaka told me to take care of you." She smiled slightly. "I'm not the most gifted at massage and the other arts of a personal slave-- that wasn't why I was chosen-- but I do know what I'm doing."

Ran knew he was turning red. "I'm sure you're great at whatever." He looked away, unable to meet her eyes any longer. "I'm just-- I'm not interested!"

"Oh. Oh! Potential Hidaka said he thought you preferred women." Aut sounded apologetic.

More laughter, this time mingled voices, came through the closed door.

That's not the way this is supposed to go. Ran couldn't look up. He focused his attention on her hands which had clasped, fingers interlaced. "It's-- It's not that." I just can't. "You're very pretty, really." Is 'pretty' the right word? She doesn't look like she's from my country-- He groped for the name of his country, losing track of his train of thought. I'll be glad when I get my language back.

Aut put her hand on one of Ran's. "It's okay if you haven't had sex before. I do know what I'm doing."

Ran snatched his hand back. "I've had sex before!" The words came out louder than he intended. And that's private! You didn't need to know. Ken didn't need to know.

A shout came from the other room.

Ran started to push himself to his feet. That wasn't Ken. He let himself collapse back onto the cushions. But Pel sounded surprised. What did Ken do?

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." Aut didn't try to touch Ran again.

Ran blinked at Aut's words then refocused on the conversation they were having. He didn't want the memories that were floating to the surface, but he wanted to think about what Ken was doing even less. Her name was Haruhi. She had a smile like a sunrise, and she wanted to be a chemist. Even after... what happened to my parents, she tried to help me. He closed his eyes. He could see Haruhi, with a look of concentration on her face, as she tried to slip a clean sheet under Aya's body. He scrubbed his hands over his eyes. They came away wet. I stopped calling her. I didn't write back when she went away to university. I didn't tell her where I was going to be. Her parents were probably thrilled. He dropped his hands to his lap. I haven't thought about Haruhi in years. Even Mom liked her.

Ken said something Ran didn't understand and could barely hear. He sounded amused.

"Would you like more water, Mr Fujimiya?"

Ran shook his head without really thinking about it. "I don't want anything."

"That makes it hard to serve you."

The voices in the other room continued, a low murmur that Ran could almost ignore.

"Then don't." Ran thought that was perfectly straightforward. "I never asked for any of this. I don't think you did either." He rubbed his face, pulling his cheeks up and down. "I don't understand any of this." The words came out more plaintive than he meant them to.

Aut didn't say anything for a moment, but he could hear her shift her position. "I can try to answer your questions."

Ran blinked several time to clear his eyes then looked at Aut. She knelt about half a meter away. Her hands lay on her thighs.

Ran asked the first question that came into his mind. "How can you do this?" He wasn't even sure what he meant by 'this.'

Aut met his eyes then looked away. "I made a bargain to keep my life. Obedience to the High Lord is the price. To survive, one makes compromises, does things that one wouldn't otherwise." She hesitated then added, "Potential Hidaka seems very straightforward in what he wants. I hope his activation succeeds."

I thought I understood Ken, but I don't. "I don't know what Ken wants," Ran admitted. I never thought of Ken with slaves. "Why slavery?" he asked before he could stop himself. "I mean, it's not civilized." Vaguely, it occurred to him that there were reasons he might not have wanted to say that.

"Civilized is what the High Lord decides it is." Aut sounded detached. "I don't think he'd like being told that you deem him uncivilized." She shrugged. "Not all High Lords choose to allow slavery. Many do but not all. Many allow things much worse. If it's any comfort, slavery is rare here. It's limited to criminals and barbarians."

A low moan came from the other room.

Ran felt himself redden. "And Pel."

Aut's lips flattened then drew together in an expression of distaste. "He's a special case." She didn't elaborate.

More sounds Ran didn't want to identify came from beyond the closed door.

What is Ken doing in there? No. I don't want to know. But I do know. Ran found himself considering mechanics and wondering how sex would work with Ken and Pel. No. Change the subject. Find a question to ask. He yawned and blinked. He looked around the room, trying to find something to tell him what to say next. Omi would have questions. Omi's not here. I want to know-- I want to know how they can do this. He rubbed his face. "Don't you worry that you'll have kids? That they'll be... stuck?"

"I'm extremely unlikely to have children." Aut looked at her hands. "First tier talents almost never do. If I did, the High Lord has made it law that a slave's owner must raise a slave's children as if they were his or her own children. Children can't be slaves. My children would be raised as Potential Hidaka's children or as the High Lord's."

"Ken can't have kids?" The tragedy of that hurt Ran. Ken loves kids. If we weren't-- If we weren't Weiss--

"It's unlikely." Aut sounded patient. "I can't say impossible, but the likelihood is vanishingly small."

Ran made a noncommittal noise. One more terrible thing. I shouldn't be surprised. He closed his eyes. What to ask next? What would Omi ask? He tried not to listen to the sounds Ken and Pel were making. He scrubbed his face with his hand. Basic intelligence. Treat this like a mission. Omi said it was a mission. Omi-- "This place-- my sister called it a base-- How big is it? What's around it? How many people are there here?"

Aut smiled. "I only know some of that. I'm new here, and the existence of this place isn't widely known. The High Lord isn't risking some other High Lord fighting him for your world. High Lords spy on each other a lot." She steepled her fingers and touched her lips. "This is a largely unpopulated world called Vin. There's no native sentient or near sentient species. The native wildlife isn't particularly friendly to any of the species the High Lord rules, so settlement is going slowly. Officially, the only settlement here is a penal colony tasked with establishing useful flora and fauna."

She hesitated. "I don't know a lot about this base. There was no reason I would know about it. I mean, the High Lord gave us a little bit of a briefing, so I know about Earth-- That's not general knowledge. Other High Lords would be trying to steal the coordinates and get there first. Any High Lord whose people find a new, viable world conceals that information very carefully. I have the impression that this base, that finding Earth, is a recent thing. We probably don't have more than a few dozen agents on the ground on Earth, and they're mostly learning enough about the place to be able to teach other people how to establish themselves without attracting a lot of notice. I don't know any of this. I'm guessing.

"I do know that Precognitive Second Crawford is valuable for his knowledge of Earth as much as for his precognition-- possibly more so. Precognition is notoriously difficult."

Ran took a moment to process what she'd said. After a moment, he gave up on making it all make sense and focused on memorizing her words. Omi will want to know. What to ask? He frowned. Omi will kill me if I don't ask the right questions. What do we need to know? What do we need to know? "All of this getting from place to place, from planet to planet, how does it work?" How can we get home?

"Travel from planet to planet occurs through gates. They're special frameworks that can be tuned to each other so that whatever passes through in one location comes out at the other. Any gate can connect to any other of equal size. Well, I think they can connect gates of different sizes. It's just that what can go in may not be what can come out, not such a big deal when going from a small gate to a big one but a problem when going from a large gate to a small one. I'm not a gate mechanic, so I don't know a lot of the details. I do know that this base has two gates, one small and one large. Each of them is probably programmed to connect quickly with certain set locations. Any place else would take preparation by a specialist."

That ought to lead me to more questions. Ran pinched his nose. I'm so tired. "There's so much I don't know."

"I can think of two things you need to know," Aut said. She laid her hands on her thighs and shrugged. "First, Potential Hidaka is right. The High Lord would take offense if he didn't, ah, take advantage of having us here. It's not so important that you do. It might be wiser, but your future doesn't depend on it."

"I can't." Ran held up his hands as if warding something off. "I-- I can kill, but I can't do that."

Aut shrugged again and looked at the floor. "The second thing you need to know is that Precognitive Second Crawford has obligations toward you. By marrying your sister, he accepted ties with your family. Your status is less than his, so he's responsible, within reason, for looking after your interests. Bringing you here, especially against your will, increases his obligation. If you offend the High Lord, punishment falls on him, too, so he has to take steps to make sure you don't, but if Precognitive Second Crawford harms you, the High Lord will be displeased. He takes such things very seriously. Education, medical treatment, access to exercise, things like that are all rights you're entitled to. Freedom to leave your room, unfortunately, isn't something you're entitled to if Precognitive Second Crawford has reason to think you might disrupt the operation of this base or get into trouble that would damage you. Offending Telekinetic First Naoe certainly falls under the heading of getting into trouble that would damage you. Be cautious."

Ran struggled to process what she'd said, but it defeated him. I'll remember it, though. Omi can explain it. "Anything else?" He desperately hoped there wasn't.

"Just this-- If I give you a massage, it might help you sleep." She looked away and bit her lip. "As long as I'm taking care of you, I have reason to stay."

Reason to stay...? Ran blinked then followed her gaze to the doorway into Ken's bedroom. Oh! She doesn't want to-- Well, of course she doesn't. "I suppose so." He raised his chin. "I'm keeping my clothes on, though."

Back to Index.
Back to Part 19.
On to Part 21.