For a moment, there was stunned silence, both out loud and on the bond. It was a deafening quiet. Then Yohji choked on his cigarette. He stabbed it out on his plate as he coughed harshly. The movement broke the others from their frozen state and immediately the group raised their voices in startled exclamations and protests.
Yohji's voice rose above the others. "You have _got_ to be shitting me."
"Actually, no." Schuldich's lips twitched into a grim sort of smile. Ken looked up at him worriedly. This wasn't easy for the German, either…It was hard for him to look at his friends and tell them this, to fight off their denials and protests and tell them that this was the truth and it was really going to happen.
"Let me get this straight." Nagi turned in his chair, fixing his friend with an intense, dark stare. He stabbed a finger at Ken. "The Ken we all knew went _through_ a mirror to another world- a world of assassins and death and all kinds of things that belong in movies and not reality. You get a new Ken dumped in your lap and suddenly you decide you want to go back through the mirror to that other world with him because he doesn't want to stay here."
"I think you summed it up pretty well, yes," Schuldich answered.
Crawford rose from his seat, voice instantly vanishing from the bond as he slammed his shields back into place. He pushed his chair under the table, turning a quelling look on the pair. Ken met his stare boldly even as his fingers tightened nervously on Schuldich's hand. The American approached them and the rest of the room went silent, watching. Crawford stopped right beside Ken, lifting his eyes from the brunette's to fix a cold look on his friend.
"I am going to borrow him for a moment," he said simply, a flat edge riding his words.
Ken glanced towards Schuldich. The telepath inclined his head slightly. Ken took a deep breath before following Crawford out of the kitchen. It was better this way, he supposed. Schuldich- with Farfarello's help- would have a better chance at talking this through with a room full of suddenly hostile people than Ken would. They were Schuldich's friends; he needed to be the one to talk to them. That didn't mean he liked going one-on-one with Crawford. Schuldich's oldest companion had watched everything that had transpired between the artist and the original Ken, and he was creepy as all hell when he was trying to protect his friend. But Ken trailed along behind him in silence, following him down the hall towards a small room. Crawford had to be convinced, and Ken would do anything to make him see this wasn't a cruel trick.
Crawford allowed Ken to enter first and followed, closing the door behind him. Ken turned to face him, swallowing hard at the intensity of the cold fury burning in that honey-brown gaze. He fought to keep from retreating, though all he wanted was to put more space between them. They said nothing for a long moment. The silence was filled with Ken's heartbeat, pounding wildly in his ears. He had seen that look Crawford was wearing many times before- it had been Ran's expression when he was dealing with Takatori. Ken had learned to mentally translate it as the Shi-ne look and he did not like having it turned on him. He waited, holding his breath, knowing that Crawford's control was going to snap. He was expecting the blow when it came but didn't bother dodging.
The punch was harder than he thought it would be and sent him crashing backwards. He ended up sprawled on the ground and lay there for several moments, trying to put his thoughts back in order. At length he pushed himself up on his arms and reached up to gingerly touch his cheek. He could taste blood and he reached out, snagging some Kleenex from a short table to spit into since the trash bin was too far away. He watched as the white tissue colored a dark red before looking up at Crawford. He didn't bother to get to his feet, deciding it was probably safer where he was. There was, after all, the slight chance that Crawford was too dignified to start kicking him.
"Do you feel better now?" he asked. "I know it's not enough. I'd let you beat me to a bloody pulp if you wanted. I know what I'm asking you today seems horribly unfair."
Crawford's glare seemed to drop the temperature of the room by several degrees. "I was starting to think I had seen how low you could go, Hidaka. You've just blown that out of the water. It is one thing to string Schuldich along. It is quite another to pull him this far into a fairy tale."
"Yes, it is like a fairy tale, isn't it?" Ken agreed. "But it is the honest to God truth. If there's anything I can say or do to convince you of that, please tell me." He spit into the napkin again. "I want you to believe us. He wants you to believe us. Whether you do in the end or not, it _is_ the truth, and we _are_ going to leave."
"You are despicable. I've watched time and time again as you've destroyed him, eating away at everything he has. I thought he had learned better by now. I don't know how you managed to pull _this_ off, but-"
"I love him," Ken interjected softly. Crawford silenced, but his expression remained hard and hateful. "I know you have no reason to believe me. You've seen what the other Ken has done to your friend and you hate him for it. I hate him too. I woke up here and was forced to ally myself with someone who had used his telepathy to hurt my team and me. And along the way, my view… changed. This Schuldich- he's wonderful. He's understanding, he's witty, he's fun. He's like no one else I've ever met and I…I hate the other Ken who was here first. I loathe him with every fiber of my being for trying to destroy everything about Schuldich that I've come to love."
He dabbed absently at his lip even though it was clean, pausing for a moment as he struggled for the right words. "I have to go back to my friends. I fear for them, to be stuck with an arrogant and selfish Ken who will be useless on missions. I worry for their lives, so I have to return to them. The J-league was my dream, was all I ever wanted. It was heaven on earth, and in this world I have it. In this world, I do not have to take lives and smell blood on my hands. But I am giving that all up. I'm willing to give both up for my friends. But I can't- I _won't_- give up Schuldich. It will not be a home I'm returning to if he isn't there."
Crawford said nothing. Ken searched his gaze, desperate for any sign that the man was listening to him. "I tried," he went on. "Last night, I decided I couldn't ask him to come. It is selfish of me to tear him away from the life he knows and friends he has, to ask him to give up everything and be pulled into a world of risks and death. Last night I tried to tell him good bye and it just ended in a fierce argument. Schuldich knows I can't leave him. He knows what I feel for him. And whether you like it or not, he feels the same for me. He won't let me leave him. And I know now that there is no way I could tell him farewell. I'd go home but I would be dead inside. I need him, Crawford. I need him where I can see him, need to see his smile and hear his voice."
Silence stretched between them. Ken stared up at the American, desperate hope making his heart ache. Crawford's expression had not changed; Ken might as well have been pleading to a rock for all the reaction he got. Finally Crawford removed his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. Ken held his breath, waiting for the verdict.
"You know I cannot believe you," Crawford said, voice flat. "Despite what you say, despite what your eyes say, despite everything Schuldich knows and shows with his gift. I have seen too much to believe such a far-fetched story and a sudden change in heart."
"I understand," Ken said softly, looking away. His thoughts were dismal as his hope dwindled. Surely there was some sort of proof that even Crawford couldn't deny. Ken had meant it when he said they didn't need Crawford to believe them for them to actually make the trip through the mirror, but he wanted the American to actually know that Schuldich was going to be all right before it happened. If only there was something…His head snapped up, eyes wide with renewed hope. "Come with us," he said, scrambling to his feet. "Fly with us to the mirror. Talk to the scientists and judge us there. If that is enough, let him go. Let him come with me," he begged. "If it isn't-" he thought frantically, "-shoot me." Crawford cocked an eyebrow at him. "If I can't convince you and you decide this is just another sick game, shoot me. Make sure I'll never hurt Schuldich again. He'd let you and I would let you." No response. Ken leaned forward, rocking onto the balls of his feet. "Just wait- you'll see. Just please, come with us. Judge with your eyes and not with your memory. Please?"
Crawford thought this over for several long moments. Ken held his breath as he waited, wide eyes searching the older man's gaze. "I will have a gun," the American said at last, "with your name on every bullet. If this turns out to be a game, it will not be a quick death."
Ken was so relieved that he acted without thinking, diving forward to hug Crawford. "Thank you thank you thank you!!"
The American shoved him off, fixing him with a final warning glare before turning and yanking the door open. Ken slipped by him on the way out, bouncing back towards the kitchen with a much lighter heart. His glee dimmed when he stepped into the room. Yohji was smoking by the window again. Farfarello was standing and leaning against the far wall with Nagi buried against his side. The others were sitting in silence, studying their plates. Schuldich was where Ken had left him, though his arms were crossed tightly over his chest.
Schuldich looked up as Ken moved to his side, a weary and humorless smile slightly curving his lips. The smile vanished when he saw Ken's face; his entire expression changed. He grabbed Ken's chin, tilting his head to one side to study his cheek with a furious blue gaze.
"Crawford, what the _fuck_-" he started, his heated words drawing all eyes to them.
"Shh, shh," Ken interrupted him quickly, reaching up to catch the fingers that brushed gently over swollen skin. "It's nothing."
"_Nothing_?" Schuldich asked, trying to yank his fingers free. Ken laced their hands together instead, giving the German's a reassuring squeeze. Crawford's anger had come at the wrong time; Schuldich looked unsettled and worn down from his conversation with his friends. "You're going to have a bruise over half of your _face_. Crawford-" He whirled to where the unrepentant precognitive lingered in the doorway.
Ken pulled him back. "Let it go, Schuldich. Just let it go."
Schuldich sent Crawford a final scathing look before turning back to Ken. He muttered dark words under his breath, tilting Ken's head this way and that to examine the already-bruising skin. Ken let him fuss, amused and touched by the older man's anger.
"Ran." The redhead looked at Crawford, tearing his purple eyes from Schuldich and Ken at the sound of his name. "The Snipers' jet leaves this afternoon for Spain with four passengers on it. You are accompanying the three of us to the research facility to locate the mirror. Pack."
/Three?/ Ken felt a light mental probing.
~That's all right, isn't it?~ Ken asked. ~Crawford has been angry for you for a long time. I want him to believe.~
/You gave him permission to shoot you?/ Schuldich gave him a flat look.
Ken offered up a wry grin. ~There had to be something in it for him.~
Schuldich gave a little laugh at that and tilted his head in, ignoring the fact that they were being watched by seven intent gazes to kiss Ken. /He is a good person,/ he told Ken. /Your predecessor just manages to bring out the worst in him./
Ran rose from his seat. "I'll call ahead," he said. He sounded tired. "They'll make arrangements for us, one way or the other."
"I'm sure they'll be thrilled to help us when you tell them why we're coming," Schuldich said, "but only use that if they want to be difficult."
Ran gave a nod. Before he could go further than a step, Aya grabbed him. She kept a white knuckled grip on his wrist, refusing to let him go. Her eyes, however, were on Crawford. "Not four," she said. Her words were sharp, her eyes strangely bright. "How dare you, Crawford. Schuldich is my friend, too. He's a friend to all of us. I am not going to wave him goodbye at the airport. I refuse to. I'm going with you." She swept her gaze around the room. "We all are. There will be nine people on that plane."
Omi was nodding in rapid agreement, his eyes equally moist. "Yes."
"And if this is a trick?" Crawford asked. "Nine people fly so eight can be fooled?"
"And if it's not?" was Nagi's fierce counter. "We all go."
Schuldich looked around at them, studying the set determination that now lined every face. "Such loyalty," he mused. Though his tone was dry, Ken was close enough to see the masked pain in his eyes. It was sinking in, right now, that Schuldich was never going to see these people again, that he would never have them as friends the way he did now. Ken thought he could feel a slight tremor in the hand he clung to and his heart ached. The artist turned to Crawford, offering him a wan smile. "If they fit," he said simply, though everyone knew they would. The jet they would take was equipped to carry Crawford's J-league team; it could easily carry nine passengers.
Crawford inclined his head in agreement. Schuldich took a step towards the door and the American moved aside. Schuldich exited the kitchen, gently pulling Ken along behind him. The two headed down the hall towards the stairs, moving quickly without rushing. Up the stairs and to the room they shared the two went, moving in silence. Ken closed the door behind them as his hand slipped free from Schuldich's. The German stopped a few feet away from him and stood there, back to Ken.
Ken stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Schuldich's waist and burying himself against the taller man's back. He wished he could say something to make this easier for the German, wished he knew something of comfort to pass on. He could not find a way to voice his sorrow and apologies, however, and tried to console himself that Schuldich would hear with his telepathy. They stood together, basking in silence and each other's presence.
It was then that Ken realized they were both scared- for if it worked, for if it failed. There would be troubles in the next world- it was chaotic and harsh. Schuldich had known a peaceful life compared to what the other one had in store for him. Schwarz, Weiß…They were both new to him and dangerous. Everything was being left behind. But if it failed…Then what? What would that mean? It was a frightening possibility that the mirror would not work.
"It will work," Schuldich said softly.
"Of course," Ken agreed, just as quiet. His voice was muffled against Schuldich's back.
Schuldich turned in his embrace. Ken loosened his arms to allow the movement but remained as close as he was, so that he found himself with his head tucked under the German's chin when Schuldich stopped. Schuldich's hands rested on his hips for a few moments before sliding towards the base of his spine.
"It's worth it," the telepath murmured. His hands slid up Ken's sides, tugging the shirt up a few inches as his palms made their way to Ken's throat. He cupped the younger man's face in his hands, careful of the bruised cheek, and Ken leaned backwards to look up at Schuldich. "You're willing to give up what you lost long ago to go back. I'm willing to give up everything for you. It's worth it. You're worth it." The last words were husky, barely more than a breath of air on Ken's face before their lips touched. It was a soft kiss, meant to reassure them both.
Ken lost track of how long they stood like that, buried in each other's embrace. Time had no meaning; time didn't matter. Their hearts were pounding against each other, erratic but together. He listened to the synchronized beat, listened to Schuldich's soft, ragged breathing. And as time passed, he felt their hearts slow. A smile curved his lips and his eyes slid closed. The fear was fading; it was melting away. Whatever happened with the mirror, they would still have each other. The mirror would work and he would be home, and no matter what happened there, he would still have Schuldich.
"Dance with me." It was a whisper by his ear.
"There's no music," Ken pointed out.
"We don't need it."
That was true, so they danced. They swayed together, keeping time to their heartbeats, moving to their breaths. Lazy turns and slow sweeps across the room…It was simple, but it was beautiful and pure. Elsewhere in the house, surely the others were packing and preparing for the trip. These two needed to grab nothing except changes of clothes for the trip. Nothing that Schuldich had here could follow him through the mirror, not even the clothes on his back. The only thing that would move would be his mind, his soul. Then he would be back where he belonged and Schuldich would be with him, and there would be no trace of the other Schuldich there that had been so cruel to them.
He tilted his head back so that he could press his lips to Schuldich's jaw. He could smell Schuldich's cologne and made a mental note to make sure they found the same brand when they made it through the mirror. It was a really nice scent, and he almost couldn't imagine the German without it. Schuldich gave a small laugh at that.
"Are you laughing at me, Schuldich?" Ken arched a brow up at the taller man, though a grin played on his lips.
"Of course not." Schuldich was the picture of innocence- save for his blue eyes, that glittered with guilty amusement.
Ken opened his mouth to retort and stopped as something occurred to him. He closed his mouth and frowned, tilting his head to one side as he studied the telepath's face. Why hadn't he noticed before? "You have a name," he said, tone almost accusing as he leaned slightly back from Schuldich. "You weren't born Schuldich; you gave yourself that name. I asked you why days ago and on reflection I don't like your answer." He lifted a hand and poked Schuldich's chest. "I'm not going to call you something that means 'guilty' anymore."
Schuldich blinked, apparently taken off-guard. Ken peered up at him. "What is your name?" he wanted to know. "What is the name your mother gave you?"
Schuldich hesitated, blue eyes searching Ken's gaze. There was a strange look in his eyes as he considered this request. At last he answered. "Jakob," he said quietly. "She Christened me Jakob."
"Jakob…" Ken echoed. He let the name roll around in his mind for a while before his lips curved into a wide smile. "I like that; it suits you…Jakob."
Schuldich gave a quiet laugh, tilting his head to one side. "It sounds strange to hear that name spoken aloud. I haven't heard it in years…" he said.
"Why wouldn't you let anyone call you it?" Ken poked him again, then let his finger slide up Schuldich's chest to rest in the hollow of his throat. He could feel the man's heartbeat there and he felt his lips twitch into a smile at the strong pulse. It was a brief expression; it faded as he raised his eyes from his hand back to Schuldich's face.
"I never stopped them," came the blithe response.
Ken frowned at him. "They don't know it." It wasn't a question; he knew the answer already. But for them to not know, Schuldich had to have given up being Jakob before he came to Japan- eight years ago. There was so much about the German that Ken didn't know. "How long have you been going by Schuldich?"
"Long enough." Schuldich cracked a grin at him.
Ken decided that was the best answer he was going to get and gave a quiet sigh, leaning forward to drop his head against the telepath's chest. He would have a lifetime to learn everything the telepath hadn't told him yet. The thought made him smile and he laced his arms around Schuldich's waist. "Should we pack?" he asked.
"I suppose we should," Jakob agreed.
Ken slowly withdrew from the older man and headed towards the dresser. Jakob went towards the closet and began rummaging through the clothes. He pulled out one of his artist's shirts and studied the paint-stained material thoughtfully. "I wonder how he'll adjust," he mused, fingering the shirt for a moment longer before setting it back in the closet.
"If there's anything human left in him at all, he'll be grateful for the second chance." Ken doubted that there was anything worth saving in the other German, but he might as well be hopeful. "Your friends will help him adjust."
"Farfarello will help him," Schuldich agreed, as if only the Irishman's help mattered.
"You explained to your friends what Schuldich is like?" Ken asked.
"Ja." Schuldich answered with a quiet sigh. He finally selected a few outfits and carried them towards the bed. "We'll pack extra clothes in case the mirror was moved from Spain," he told Ken as he deposited the clothes on the mattress. "Ran said one source hinted that the mirror was destroyed, but there's no way researchers would get rid of something like that mirror."
"How long did they have the mirror?" Ken wanted to know. "He didn't say, did he?"
Schuldich made a vague gesture to his head to indicate his telepathy. "They had had it less than a year before he showed up, and he was there roughly six months ago."
"Hm." Ken chucked underwear and socks towards the bed, his mind running over Ran's story from that morning. "And everyone else who came through the mirror killed themselves." He bit his lip and half-turned, gazing towards Schuldich. "Why?"
Schuldich shook his head. "No idea. Maybe they ended up in a worse situation than before, or they left something behind that they couldn't live without." He returned to the closet and tugged down a suitcase from the top shelf, lugging it back towards the bed. "Who knows?"
"I sure don't," Ken said quietly, absently. His fingers trailed down the arm bands that hid his scars and he felt a shiver run down his spine.
Crawford had gone to school with a man who now owned a private airport just outside Guadalajara. The J-league manager placed a quick call to him and received his enthusiastic approval to use the landing field. Sixteen hours after their jet left the ground at Japan, they touched down on the runway there. Ken was exhausted when the plane finally came to a halt. His body was telling him that it was supposed to be nearing sunrise the next day, but the pilot cheerily announced that it was only 10:30 p.m. in Spain. He had only managed to get two hours of sleep on the plane, partly due to the tension between him and the rest of the passengers, partly due to the fact that Omi had brought several bags of candy on board with him- all of which had been devoured within an hour. It was almost frightening how energetic that kid could get. Ken had to wonder how Ran could deal with it every day. Luckily the boy had passed out three hours ago. Right now he was half sprawled against his red-haired lover.
Ken rubbed his eyes blearily, wishing that he had been able to get more rest. He peered out the window, studying the rows of lights on the runway. Across the aisle, Crawford rose from his spot. He looked rested. To Ken's great relief, the American had slept most of the ride over. It was hard enough that everyone else was uptight; it would have been much worse if the precognitive had been awake to glare at him for sixteen hours.
They still had almost an hour to go to Segovia, where the research facility was. The lab had agreed to open its doors to them no matter what time they arrived. They had not been as accommodating until Ran had told them why the group was coming. Ran had said he wasn't sure the lab workers believed him, as they were confident they had retrieved all of their assistants that had gone astray, but would take the chance.
The return of his nervousness helped rouse him further from his sleepy state. Ken rubbed at his stomach, feeling almost nauseous as he undid his seatbelt. Just an hour, and then they would be there. Would the mirror be there, or would they have to travel more to reach it? He prayed it would be in Segovia. He didn't know if his nerves could take another trip, and a part of him hated the idea of another flight dragging out the inevitable farewell between Schuldich and his friends.
He reached out, placing a hand to Schuldich's shoulder. The telepath had been sleeping off and on the whole flight. "Hey…" he said softly, giving him a gentle shake.
Blue eyes slid open slowly and the German raised a hand to cover a loud yawn. The overhead lights were clicking on, thankfully dim. "There?" he asked sleepily.
"We're here," Ken affirmed.
Schuldich tugged his seatbelt off but didn't seem interested in getting to his feet for a few minutes more. Farfarello was up, helping Crawford lift baggage down from the overhead compartments. Aya, who had had a seat to herself, was looking around with wide eyes. She met Ken's gaze and Ken bit his lower lip, waiting to see anger in her eyes, waiting to see what he was sure she felt for him for tearing the group apart. Her gaze was thoughtful rather than judgmental, however…wistful rather than angry.
The rest of the group was standing and stretching. Yohji, ever vain, was raking a hand through his hair to make sure it had not been mussed much in his sleep. Nagi was lifting the final pieces of luggage down without touching them. The pilot, whom Crawford had given a hotel room in Guadalajara, left the cabin to come check on them. He and Crawford exchanged a few words and he made himself comfortable in a nearby seat to watch as the passengers picked their personal baggage from the clump.
Ken looped an arm around Schuldich's waist, needing something to help him stay upright. Omi seemed to be equally incapacitated, as he had both arms around Ran's waist and was leaning against the redhead's back. Schuldich grabbed their bag and they joined in the rest of their friends to slowly exit the plane. The door had opened into stairs that let them down right onto the runway, and a man stood at the base of the stairs to wave a happy greeting. He was babbling something, and while Ken knew that he should be able to understand it, his tired brain wouldn't process the words. He was leaning more and more on Schuldich, though he was trying not to, and it was a fight to keep his eyes open. Through bleary eyes he watched as the man- who looked to be American- greeted Crawford, Nagi, and Schuldich happily. He was dimly aware that that there were introductions going around for the people the airport owner didn't know, but it took too much energy to pay attention.
/Stay awake just a little longer,/ Schuldich urged him. /He arranged for some taxis to meet us here. You can sleep in the car./
Ken couldn't form a coherent answer to that, but he did yawn. He thought that they were moving, but he couldn't be sure. Last night's horrible sleep over his argument with Schuldich and this night's scant rest were more than enough to drain him. He thought he saw bright lights getting closer but he couldn't be sure. The next thing he was aware of was a hand patting his shoulder.
There was an amused snort. /Ken, it's time to wake up./
"Mmf." He didn't remember falling asleep. More importantly, he didn't want to wake up. Who was trying to wake him? He just wanted to sleep…
There was an all too familiar click and Ken was awake instantly, nerves on the alert as he sent a sharp look around. One hand had pushed Schuldich down on the seat in a move meant to protect him as he tried to locate the source of the noise. He spotted Crawford standing outside the car, a handgun in his hands. He had been checking the bullets- what Ken had heard was him snapping the cylinder back into place.
Ken allowed himself to relax, regardless of the fact that the bullets in that gun were meant for him if tonight went wrong. Schuldich was looking mildly amused by Ken's instinctive reaction. Ken made a face at him that told the German in no uncertain terms that he was not happy to be the telepath's entertainment. His team didn't use guns except on rare occasions, so that noise generally preceded an attack on them. He had every reason to be uptight.
Schuldich sat up and slid out of the car. Ken followed slowly, rubbing at his eyes. What an effective way to be woken up. He sent an uneasy glance towards Crawford. The man gave him a cool look as he hid the gun in his jacket. Everyone else was out of the cars already. They were standing before a large building. Ken looked around, noticing the large gate they had come through. The lights on the building dimly highlighted the barbed wire circling the top of the fence, and he could see a sentry by the gate.
The door swung open then, and bright light spilled out onto the group. Four men stepped outside to study them. Ken blinked against the harsh light, studying the four Spanish scientists. There was a long moment as they assessed each other. Finally Ran stepped forward, saying something in what Ken had to guess was Spanish. The man in front nodded and responded, and they spoke for a few moments, rapid-firing at each other. Ken had to be impressed at Ran's fluency in the language- it sounded like nonsense to him.
Ran turned and indicated him, then, and all eyes were suddenly on Ken. All too aware of the scrutiny, he was hesitant to obey Ran's beckon forward. He found strength in Schuldich, however, and made himself close the distance between him and Ran. The scientist held out his hand and Ken accepted it, returning an awkward handshake.
"Welcome," the man greeted in English, lifting his hand to rake it through graying hair. He had a thick accent, not as pretty as Farfarello's lilt but still intelligible. "I am Dr. Santez. You are Ken?"
Ken hoped he could trust his English. He had not been good at it at all in school, but he seemed to have a better grip of comprehension since coming here. He supposed he was learning through osmosis from Farfarello. Schuldich had told him to trust his mind to know what to speak. "Yes, I'm Ken," he answered.
"Hm." The man eyed him for a few moments before turning away. "Come in. It is cold outside." Santez and two of his colleagues led the way down the hall. The fourth stayed behind to close and bolt the door behind the last person. The floor was metal and bare, and the sounds of their footsteps seemed to echo down the hall. There were no doors and no decorations in this hall, and it ended soon in an elevator. The only thing was a simple bench, perhaps where a security guard rested during the day. Santez ran his ID through the box beside the doors and rapped in a quick code. Ken could hear the sound of the elevator rising and soon the doors slid open. Santez put his leg against one door to keep it open and turned to survey the group. "We will go down in two groups," he said, beckoning for Ken to step in. "Eight now, eight in the next."
"Do you have a separate place the drivers can stay?" Crawford asked.
Santez glanced back at the two. "Of course." He said something in Spanish to them, gesturing to the bench. They responded and made themselves comfortable to wait. Ran added something onto it that sounded apologetic, and the three men smiled and shook their heads, perhaps showing that they didn't mind being excluded.
One of the scientists boarded behind Ken and Schuldich. Crawford, Yohji, Ran, and Farfarello were chosen to accompany them, and Santez took the last spot. The other two scientists waited behind with the remaining group. The ride down was silent. Schuldich was gazing straight ahead, but his eyes were distant. Ran's gaze was equally unfocused.
~Schuldich?~ Ken inquired.
/Ran's translating their thoughts for me…/ came the absent response. /I can't understand Spanish./
Ken quieted, allowing the two to root through the men's minds. When the lift came to a stop and they started down a new hall, Santez began speaking again and Ken knew that his friends were forced to stop their mental deciphering. "We were very surprised to receive your call, Señor Fujimiya. I will admit we have some doubts about your claim."
/Translation- they think we're bluffing so Ran could find more classified information out,/ Schuldich informed Ken. From the edge to his voice, Ken knew the words were going to all of their group. /Ran has never seen these four before; they're on the head staff and he talked to lower associates. They are not interested in us- they are interested in Ken proving that he has done what he claims he has./
Crawford must have said something to Schuldich only; Ken didn't hear him respond but the German sent him a Look. They reached an open door then and Santez made a gesture for them to enter. There was a long table inside, and they were invited to make themselves comfortable. There were Styrofoam cups at each place, and several pitchers of what Ken assumed was coffee were spread out along the table. While they sat, Ken knew it was impossible for anyone to be comfortable. Now that they were at the research facility, everyone was uneasy. Ken could see the tension in his friends as they seated themselves. Farfarello took the seat on the other side of Schuldich. While his expression was calm, his knuckles were white where his fingers were laced together in his lap. Ken forced himself to turn his attention elsewhere, as his guilt at bringing Schuldich home with him stabbed fiercely through his heart at the sign of the Irishman's unhappiness.
Ken leaned to one side, letting his shoulder touch Schuldich's. He needed the contact. He was torn between excitement and an anxiety so great it took everything he had to keep from bolting from the room. His hands were shaking and he clenched them on his slacks, struggling to keep his uneasiness from showing on his face. There was silence in the room until the rest of the group filtered in.
Santez rose from his chair. His three colleagues were by the door still, their eyes on Ken. "We would like to speak to Ken for a few minutes."
Ken felt a brief flare of panic for reasons he couldn't really explain. He didn't want to be alone with the men. He wasn't sure he would be able to get his story across right. He was afraid he wouldn't know what to say to make them believe him.
"Señor Santez," Schuldich spoke up, drawing the man's attention to him. "Ken's English is limited. He can understand it better than he can speak it. It might be beneficial to everyone involved if he is accompanied by someone who can help him if he falters."
They considered this. There must have been a quick conference between Schuldich and Ran, for a slight frown tugged at the telepath's mouth. /They don't trust my appearance,/ he told Ken, /and they don't trust Ran's intentions./
~Farfarello?~ Ken asked, though he knew it was highly unlikely that the scientists would want someone who looked like Farfarello to help translate. His eyes slowly traveled to Crawford. The scientists had turned to him as well.
"You are American, sir?" Santez asked.
"Perhaps you would do us a favor?"
Crawford's gaze slid to meet Ken's and they met eyes across the table, each studying the other. Crawford rose from his chair in a lithe movement. Ken took a deep breath before rising as well. Schuldich offered an encouraging murmur. The telepath would be listening in to hear what happened and would be passing it on to the rest of the group; Ken knew it. He told himself that it was very lucky that Crawford was coming along- a conversation with the scientists of the mirror could be the final piece of proof the American needed. He didn't like that the American was armed, however, but he told himself to trust in the mirror and hope to any kami that could hear him all the way in Spain that it was here in the facility.
The six crossed the hall to another office. This room was just as large as the first. Ken and Crawford sat on one side of the table, and the scientists sat on the other. The man to Santez's right removed his glasses, rubbing them on his jacket and peering at Ken.
"Fujimiya claims that you have touched our mirror."
"I touched it, yes." Not theirs, but someone else's.
"We do not recognize you."
"I have never been here before," Ken agreed.
"Perhaps you would like to explain."
Ken took a deep breath and began. He told them about how he had stumbled across the mirror- told them what it looked like and where he had found it. He told them about waking up in this world and his confusion over it, telling them the differences and similarities between what he knew and what he had suddenly woken up to. He told them about how he and Schuldich had searched for any clues in the library in vain, how they had spent hours poring over books and articles. He told them about how the subject of the mirror had come up and how it had matched what he had been looking for. He was dimly aware of Crawford's piercing look when he used Schuldich's real name, but struggled to ignore the man. He was having enough trouble with his English, and several times Crawford had to reword a sentence or act as a dictionary for him. Slowly the story came out. The scientists listened in silence.
When he was done they leaned back in their chairs, quiet as they considered this. Finally Santez spoke.
"You have had a very trying week," he said, rising from his chair. "I have heard stories like yours from several of my associates. You came searching for the mirror, whereas they fled it. Perhaps that is because you had the fortune to find yourself in familiar territory." He slid his hands into his pockets, leaning against the far wall and studying Ken. "You are the first. That is interesting." He fell silent, thinking.
Ken allowed him a few moments to reflect upon this before speaking. "Please, sir. Tell me if the mirror is still here."
Santez slid a hand out of his pocket and reached out, touching a small keypad beside him. There was a loud clank before half of the wall split and began rising. There was a clear wall behind it, and through it Ken found himself staring at the object of his long search. He half rose from his chair, a hot rush of relief filling his veins.
"It is here," Santez said.
"Will you let me use it?" Ken asked eagerly. "I need to get home." Santez said nothing, gazing out at the mirror thoughtfully. "Sir, I have to go back through your mirror."
"How do you propose to do such a thing?" Santez asked, turning back to him.
Ken frowned, puzzled. "The same way I went through it the first time. I will touch it and go back through."
Santez gave an odd sort of sigh. "It is not a door in which to go through, Ken."
"It brought me here," Ken argued stubbornly. "It can bring me back. It has to. There _is_ a through, because I touched a mirror and it was _not_ that one." He jabbed his finger at the window.
"You touched it and activated it, correct?" Santez asked. Ken nodded. "Do you know how many people we had touch the mirror?" He did not wait for a response before answering. "Thirty-six. Thirty-six people touched this mirror. That is a lot of people to be lost to it, wouldn't you think? But there is a catch. Explain to me, Ken, if touching is how you 'go through' the mirror…Why did it only affect some?"
"Some?" Ken repeated blankly.
"Only fifteen of those that touched the mirror lost their minds. Only fifteen that came in contact with it began ranting stories similar to yours."
Ken didn't know what to say to that. In his mind, he heard Ran's voice- "Some people would suddenly forget everyone around them, would suddenly forget their purpose and location. Friends they had known for years- and in one case a family- were strangers. Some started speaking an entirely different language and couldn't understand a word of Spanish."
Some. Ran had said some. Had he _meant_ some?
"Just fifteen?" Crawford asked.
Santez nodded. "The majority of those that touched it showed no changes afterwards. It was the smaller half that changed. If you have to touch it to activate it, then explain why it only changed some of my subordinates."
Ken didn't have an explanation. He struggled for something to say. "The fifteen killed themselves…" he managed to get out. "Why? I went through the mirror. I'm not insane, and I don't want to kill myself."
"Fujimiya told you that they killed themselves." Santez sent a considering look over his shoulder, turning it on the mirror. "What he did not tell you, because he did not know, was that they did not kill themselves until after they had touched the mirror a second time."
Ken opened his mouth, then closed it soundlessly. He slowly sank back into his seat.
"They were not insane, Ken. They were changed. They were frightened. They appeared to be sane on all other counts, even if they did not make sense. Just like you make sense, when you claim that you have been transported to a different world. They insisted on touching the mirror when they were brought back here. They wanted the same thing you did- they wanted to 'return home'. We gave them what they wanted."
"…And?" It was barely louder than a whisper.
"That is when they broke," Santez said. There was pain in his voice, a weary sadness in the eyes he turned on Ken. He was speaking about people he had once worked with, and Ken could see the lingering grief over their deaths in his eyes. "Most of them seemed to shut down after touching it again. Two started screaming. One tried to destroy the mirror and had to be put down. Another tried attacking those near him in a frenzied rage."
"But…But why…?" Ken turned wide eyes on Crawford, who was studying the scientists with a slight frown on his face. The American noticed the attention and looked towards him. The hostility was gone from his eyes, replaced by an unreadable look. He returned Ken's stare, two sets of brown eyes searching each other. Ken knew then, staring at Crawford, that the American believed his story. He knew then that the man had wanted to believe him since he had heard Ken's story that morning. If Ken had been lying, if he had been playing just another cruel game- Crawford wouldn't have known how to save Schuldich in the aftermath of such a trick.
Now Crawford believed. But now they were learning something Ken didn't expect.
"I am sorry to give you such disappointing news," Santez told Ken, and the athlete tore his eyes away from Crawford's to look back up at the scientist. "You have tried very hard to locate the mirror, and that is all the help I can give you. I can do nothing but advise you to leave here, to forget about the mirror and try and readjust."
"I _can't_," Ken burst out. "You don't understand. I can't have come all the way here just to turn around again."
"Ken." It was Crawford. Ken ignored him.
"My friends could _die_. You don't understand. I can't give up on them and walk away. That _thing_," he jabbed a finger towards the mirror again, "put me here. It has to put me back. I have to try."
"You have a strong conviction," Santez said, "but I will say it again: the mirror will bring you no good. I will ask you again to forget about it."
"And I will say again that I _can't_." One of Ken's fists slammed into the table. He was angry, he was scared, he was frustrated and upset. He had worked so hard to get here, to try and find the mirror. He could not give up on his friends and his world. That mirror put him here; it was only fair that it put him back.
"Ken," Crawford said again. He grabbed at Ken's arm.
Ken jerked out of his grasp. "Let me see it. It's my risk to take."
"I will be your exception," Ken told him flatly. "I have seen many nightmares in my life. I have lived through too many close calls. I am not going to let that mirror defeat me." With that, Ken stormed out of the room. He heard chairs clattering as the men jumped to their feet to follow him. Schuldich met him in the hall, grabbing at his upper arms. There was uncertain worry dancing in his blue eyes- he did _not_ like what the scientists had to say. The door was open behind him, and Ken could see several alarmed faces through it. They didn't approve of it, either. What had been going to be a safe albeit sad departure had just become a dangerous one.
/I don't like that,/ Schuldich told him.
~I have to try it,~ Ken told him. ~I can't give up here.~
Schuldich gave a shake of his head. /I don't like the risks…/ he said again.
~You know more than anyone else here why I have to try this,~ Ken said, not backing down. ~I will not let this mirror be the end of me. There is another side to that mirror, and I will go through it. I have faced bizarre things in my world; this mirror is just another one of them. I can make it.~
/The risks are too high./
~I won't be able to live with myself if I don't try.~
/And what happens if that mirror hurts you?/ Schuldich demanded sharply.
Ken leaned up onto his tiptoes and kissed him. It was not a nice kiss, but they were both too uptight for it to be tender. Even so, it was a perfect kiss: it spoke of their feelings for each other, it spoke of their commitment to each other, it spoke of their fear over this mirror that had suddenly turned hazardous.
Schuldich released him slowly and Ken turned back to the scientists who had watched the display with no small bit of shock. Ken pointed down the hall at the end door. There was a large keypad beside it, and it was in the direction of the mirror.
"The mirror is through there?" he asked.
Santez looked back at his colleagues. They conversed for a few moments in Spanish. Finally one started towards the door. Santez looked back at Ken, watching as Schuldich reached forward and closed his hand around Ken's wrist. "You seem like you have a lot to lose, strange man. Why are you so willing to throw it all away?"
"Because I have to believe that this will work," Ken answered softly.
Santez shook his head slowly, reluctantly. Finally he beckoned for Ken to follow and headed towards the door. His coworker had gotten it open. The entire group entered the room, and there were a few awed murmurs as they took in the sight of the mirror. Ken fought back a shiver. He was scared of the mirror, scared of what Santez had told him. What if this didn't work? What if the mirror destroyed him rather than brought him back?
/I will not let you get lost./ Schuldich's voice was quiet but firm.
~Wait until you see the other Ken replace me before following,~ Ken told him. He could not make himself look back at the German. He gave Schuldich's hand a tight squeeze, then let his fingers slide free. All eyes were on him as he crossed the room. There was a ramp up to where the mirror sat. Large metal poles kept it standing upright, and he watched his reflection as he approached. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears. In the mirror, his brown eyes locked with Schuldich's blue.
He lifted one trembling hand to let it hover just in front of the mirror, refusing to take his eyes off of Schuldich. "I love you," he mouthed, and pressed his palm to the glass.