Part Seven

    The door was unlocked. Ken let himself in and toed his shoes off just inside. He paused for a moment, listening. The apartment was silent. He did not feel the urge to break the quiet so stepped further inside without calling out a greeting. He paused in the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water from the sink. He sipped at it slowly, then set it down on the counter to rub at his temples. He was almost all of the way through the list. There had been one book there that had gotten his hopes up, but it was a false lead. At least there were few enough books that they could easily be finished in one more trip. Surely that would be encouraging news to Schuldich.

    ~Unless there really is nothing…~ Ken thought with a hint of despair.

    No. Schuldich had told him not to think in such pessimistic terms. They wouldn't give up. They couldn't. He remembered the conviction of Schuldich's words to him and took strength in it, downing the rest of his glass. Schuldich was in his art studio still, he guessed, so that was where he headed next. He did not want to disturb the other man, but at the same time, he just felt drawn to the artist's presence.

    He gave the studio door a light knock and listened. There was no response. Dimly he heard what sounded like liquid dripping. ~Schuldich?~ he asked, hesitant to enter without a welcome from the other man. Perhaps Schuldich didn't want to see him. Perhaps Schuldich had lost patience with him.


    Gathering his resolve, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. "Schu…" He trailed off, eyes widening as he took in the state of the room.

    The studio…was ruined.

    The three easels were overturned. The neat rows of paintings were scattered. Paint stained the floor, and one can sat on its side, with paint slowly dripping from the rim. The stool was knocked over and had left skid marks in paint that wasn't quite dry, giving the impression that it had been shoved over and then kicked across the floor. Paintbrushes littered the ground, scattered everywhere. A sheet was crumpled up, stained multiple colors from the mixing paints on the wooden floor.

    What really hit Ken, what really took his breath away, was the shredded canvas by the window seat. He took a faltering step in that direction, then checked the ground around his feet and made his way towards the destroyed painting more carefully. He had to jump over the sluggish river of red and paused just briefly to make sure he wasn't tracking the paint.

    He dropped to his knees beside the canvas, reaching out with shaking fingers to push some of the curled shreds back into place. Yellow ribbons and a boy's face- desperate, pleading, hopeless- stared back at him. He had seen that expression earlier today. He had seen it outside Crawford and Yohji's house. He released the painting and slowly rose to his feet, looking around at the disaster scene.

    The numb shock faded, replaced with overriding worry. "Schuldich?" he called. The man had not answered his mental query earlier. Where was he? "Schuldich?" He hurried across the room, not bothering to watch where he was stepping this time. The bedroom door was shut and he pushed it open, holding his breath.

    Schuldich was sprawled on top of the bed, stretched out on his stomach. His back rose evenly in sleep, and his cheek rested against the covers he had not bothered to pull back. Ken was careful to step silently across the room towards him, and he crouched slowly, reaching out to press his hand to Schuldich's forehead. It wasn't warm, and Ken allowed himself some relief that the German wasn't sick. Even so, it was obvious that it wasn't a peaceful rest he was enjoying. Fingers absently clenched and released the quilt Schuldich lay on, and now and then a grimace pulled at his mouth. His face was pale, too.

    Ken withdrew his hand and studied Schuldich's face for several moments more. Finally he crossed around to the other side of the bed, pulling the blanket free from that side of the mattress so that he could drape it over Schuldich's form. He stood beside Schuldich, reaching down without thinking to thread his fingers through Schuldich's hair. His hand moved to Schuldich's face and he gently swept his fingertips along the older man's cheek.

    ~I'm sorry I hurt you, Schuldich…~ Ken thought, though he wondered if Schuldich was too far under to hear the words.

    Schuldich shifted slightly, then relaxed again. After a moment, his expression cleared as he went into an easier sleep. Ken took a step away from the bed, but it was easier for him to move backwards than it was for him to tear his eyes from Schuldich's face. It was harder than it should have been to turn away and finally leave that room. He closed the door behind him as softly as he could and found himself facing the studio again.

    Giving a small nod, he went in search of some cleaning materials. There was a small closet in the kitchen that provided him with what he needed, and he let a bucket start filling with warm water and soap. As he waited, he glanced towards the clock. It was nearing dinner time, but he didn't see any need to wake Schuldich up to make it. Instead, he stepped towards the cabinets and opened the doors, studying his options. He recognized several boxes and bags easily; they ate those foods often at home. He did not reach for them, however.

    Scrunched in the far back of the cabinet was a can with foreign writing on it. He was reaching for it when he remembered the bucket, and he hurried back to the sink to turn the water off before returning to the cabinets. He plucked the can down and studied the label. It was more of that "sarukuratu" stuff.

    German food…Ken had no clue how to make it, but he was sure Schuldich wouldn't mind eating it. It was the least he could do for Schuldich, for screwing up everything else for him. Perhaps there was a place around here where he could buy it? There was a phone book near the phone, and he flipped through the pages in search of foreign restaurants. He managed to locate one that advertised German food and marked the page with a scrap of a napkin.

    He left the phone book there and returned to the bucket, lifting it from the sink and toting it down the hall to the studio. He made a second trip to bring the mop, some rags, and a scrub brush as well, and he set them all aside to survey the room. Nodding to himself as he organized a sketchy plan of action, he began to work. He straightened the rows of portraits, lining them up along the wall they belonged against. He moved the easels to the opposite wall, standing them up beside it. The stool needed some scrubbing, and he carried it to a clean spot near the bucket. The hard bristles of his scrub brush were enough, with the help of the thoroughly soapy water, to get most of the paint off, and he put it to one side to dry. The little bucket for the paint tubes and paint brushes was upended in a corner, and he collected and rinsed the art utensils before putting them back where they belonged. Schuldich's shredded canvas was set very carefully on the window seat, and the sheet was wrapped up so that the clean bits were on the outside before being put in their laundry basket.

    The rags helped to get up most of the pooled paint, but it would take the mop and the scrub brush to get the worst of the stains. Ken didn't mind the work. It was almost like cleaning up the flower shop- it was something he could do without having to think about it, and he welcomed the respite from his troubled thoughts.

    When the art studio was practically spotless- Ken doubted that all of the red stain would ever come out of the wood- he checked on Schuldich again. The German was still asleep. He probably needed the rest. Ken returned the cleaning things to their proper spot and went back to the phone book. They could eat out tonight, so that Schuldich wouldn't have to cook, and they would eat what Schuldich liked to eat. The ad said that reservations were recommended, so he plucked up the phone. Hopefully it wouldn't be too busy this evening.

    He placed a reservation for two for seven thirty and went back to check on Schuldich. He knew he should probably entertain himself elsewhere and let the man sleep in peace, but he couldn't stop himself from approaching the bedroom. He was a moth and Schuldich was the flame, and no matter how much he knew he should leave the flame alone, he couldn't. He slipped into the bedroom and padded towards the bed. Schuldich's face wasn't as pale anymore; that was a great relief. He crouched beside the bed and touched his forehead again anyway.

    Blue eyes slid open at the contact, blinking heavily a couple of times before fully focusing on Ken's face. "You're back," the German commented as Ken withdrew his hand. He pushed himself up, rubbing a hand over his face to scrub away the lingering hints of sleep. "What are you doing?"

    "I was making sure you weren't sick," Ken answered, crossing his arms on the edge of the mattress and resting his chin on them. He gazed up at Schuldich, who looked down at the blanket that had been pulled to cover him with mild confusion. "You weren't sleeping well earlier, and you were pale. I was afraid you were coming down with something."

    "I slept." Schuldich looked around the bedroom, almost as if he didn't remember coming in here.

    "You did," Ken agreed. "I've been home almost forty minutes, and you've been out the entire time. I don't know what time you went to bed, but I was at the library for three hours."

    "Fuck." Schuldich sighed and shoved the blanket off of him. Ken rose and climbed onto the bed, crawling to sit on Schuldich's other side where there was more room. He crossed his legs Indian style and gazed at Schuldich, wondering about the German's negative reaction to sleeping. Schuldich caught the look and gave a faint shrug, glancing away. "I didn't need to sleep, but it's not as if I could have helped it. It was just too much," he said, and Ken doubted he was referring to the sleep. The artist gave a faint nod, acknowledging Ken's guess, and gestured to his head.

    "Your gift," Ken said.

    Schuldich crossed his own legs and leaned back against the headboard of the bed, gazing at the opposite wall without seeing it. "I've learned to fuel my gift so that thoughts are as much image as they are thought," he said. "There were too many things going on back at Crawford's place…Too many words."

    "You said you needed to paint." Ken took a deep breath. "Schuldich, what did you _do_ to your studio?"

    "You saw it. Why ask me?"

    "_Why_ did you do it? Schuldich, your painting, the one you did just for yourself…What possessed you to destroy it like that?"

    Schuldich gave a soft laugh that was devoid of any mirth. "Because I hated it," he answered simply.

    "Then why did you paint it?"

    Schuldich tilted his head towards Ken. "It's as much 'when' it was done as 'why' it was done. Ken and I had just had a huge argument. I had to paint it, because the words were too loud. Because of that, the argument is all I see when I look at the painting."

    "So that's why it was covered…" Ken mused. He looked down at his hands where they were folded in his lap. "It must have been a terrible argument," he said softly, "for you to paint something like that. It was as if you captured one of Farfarello's songs on a canvas." That was the only way he could sum up the emotions the painting had portrayed.

    Schuldich considered this. "It was a fight about actions," he said at last, "and consequences."

    Ken thought for a few moments, studying the expression on Schuldich's face, before adding, "And blame?" Perhaps the haunted look in Schuldich's eyes from that morning had to do with arguments with Ken; if Schuldich was devoted to his lover so much and they could still have terrible arguments, then Ken would bet that disrupted peace between them could be one of his sources of pain. Schuldich said nothing, and his eyes held Ken's without wavering. Ken offered Schuldich a faint smile, untangling his fingers to reach out and give one of Schuldich's hands a light squeeze. "If your painting reminded you of something that could bother you so much, Schuldich, then I'm glad you destroyed it. Next time you paint yourself a picture, try to paint something a bit happier, hm?"

    Schuldich said nothing. Ken studied him again. "You look like you could use a change of scenery," he declared, giving Schuldich's hand a light tug. "There are two seats waiting for us at Bernd's Bar[1] at 7:30. Is that a change enough?"

    Schuldich blinked. "That's a German restaurant."

    "Yeah, I found it in the phone book. There's sarukuratu in the cabinet but I don't know how to make it, so I figure we can go out to dinner and you can take it out of the other Ken's wallet. Sound good?" He searched Schuldich's expression for any sign of approval. Schuldich gave him a blank look. Ken turned away, mildly disappointed that he hadn't gotten a better reaction, and uncrossed his legs. As he was sliding towards the edge of the bed, a hand closed on his elbow, stilling him.

    He found himself pulled back a bit and he twisted to gaze up at Schuldich. The German's free hand lifted to his face, and his fingers traced Ken's cheek. He was gazing at Ken as if he had never seen him before, and for some reason that look make Ken's breath catch in his throat.

    "I don't understand you…" Schuldich said slowly.

    Ken felt a smile curve his lips and he reached up without thinking, lacing his fingers through Schuldich's and giving them a small squeeze. "But you do," he insisted quietly. They gazed at each other in silence for a moment, contemplating the other, before Ken could make himself pull his fingers free. He turned towards the edge of the bed and scooted off the rest of the way. A strange sort of nervousness was making his heart beat a little quicker than he thought it should be and he clasped his hands behind his back, smile losing the soft edge to turn cheery. "So what do you say about dinner?"

    Schuldich followed his example in putting the quiet exchange and unexplained softness behind them, his look clearing to the usual amused expression. A smirk twitched the corner of his mouth upwards as he pushed himself from the mattress. "What, you think I'm actually going to say no to having some decent food?"

    "Japanese is decent," Ken protested.

    "You just say that because you were brainwashed at an early age," Schuldich said, waving a hand in dismissal.

    "Yeah, whatever." Ken rolled his eyes and followed Schuldich out of the room. Schuldich found the keys and they left together.


    "Give me the keys."


    "Yes. Now."


    Ken planted one fist on his hip and held the other out to Schuldich demandingly. The German seemed amused by the imperious posture, because he smirked. "Because you've been drinking. There's no way I'm going to let you drive."

    Schuldich rolled his eyes. "I only had four drinks."

    "Five," Ken corrected him.

    "Four, five…" Schuldich gave a vague wave of one hand. "It's not going to impair my judgment. I've driven on more before and made it back safely enough."

    "You made it back because you must have the devil's luck, then," Ken told him, taking the keys from where the ring dangled on one of Schuldich's fingers. "And don't tell me things like that, because from now on I'll be worried sick about your stupidity. Thanks a lot." He gave the artist a small push towards the passenger door and moved his way around to the driver's seat. "Driving under the influence makes you a danger to yourself and everyone else on the road."

    "What are you, some anti-alcohol agent?" Schuldich slid into seat and tugged the door shut.

    Ken sighed. "No…Omi and I have just given Yohji the speech half a billion times." He shut his own door and buckled himself, then pushed the keys into the ignition and twisted to face Schuldich, waiting expectantly. The artist gazed back for a few moments before grumbling and buckling himself in. Ken allowed a satisfied grin to curve his lips and he turned the engine on, looking over his shoulder as he backed out of the parking lot.

    The dinner had been good. Ken hadn't really expected to like the food, but Schuldich had found him several dishes that had been quite tasty. He had to assume that the dishes were hard to make, since foreign meals were only served once a week at Schuldich's apartment. Schuldich gave a soft laugh and Ken glanced over at him.

    "What?" he asked.

    "Just thinking," the artist told him.

    "Ah." Silence descended between them as each entertained himself with his own thoughts. Ken let his mind wander over the dinner, turning their conversations over in his head. Inspired by the atmosphere- and perhaps by the German beer he was drinking- Schuldich had told him little tales about life in Germany. He had compared culture and discussed the politics of his youth. He had mentioned the town he had grown up in, but only in passing, and was more content to tell of the cities he had visited. He had seen the Berlin Wall before it had crumbled and had gone to visit it once after his fall. He had said that while he would have liked to be there when it first fell, he guessed the noise of so many minds would have made him unable to enjoy it. He had been to Egypt, to Scotland, and to America, and he had a small story for each base his father had been stationed at. Ken found it amazing that he could remember so many things in such great detail when he had been so young while at those places; after all, Schuldich had said that he had been in Japan since he was fourteen.

    Then again, if Ken took Schuldich's skilled painting into consideration, it was no surprise that Schuldich had a keen mind for detail.

    He frowned, pulled from his thoughts when he was trying to park and realized there was a dumpster in the way. ~Now who put…~

    The thought trailed off and he felt his heart give a small, sick lurch. Schuldich looked up when the car stopped and glanced around, taking in their dark surroundings. Ken turned the engine off, twisting the keys with numb fingers. He unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed out of the car, staring up at the building he had parked behind. A streetlight off to one side illuminated a road sign.

    He had allowed his mind to wander, trusting his subconscious to find the way home. He had driven them home, but not to the home that he was supposed to be at now. He had driven them to where the Koneko no Sumu Ie was supposed to be.

    It wasn't there; he did not recognize this squat building. He realized Schuldich had abandoned the car as well but did not look back. Instead he started forward, sliding past the dumpster and walking alongside the building, heading towards the front to identify it. The sign declared it to be a fresh produce store. There was a grocery store where his beloved flower shop was supposed to be. Indignation flared and he shoved it down with great difficulty as Schuldich came to rest beside him.

    "It's not right," Ken said.

    "You should be happy," Schuldich said simply. "You joked that your 'Kritiker' wanted a good supply of flowers for the assassin units that died under them. Here, no one needs the flowers."

    Ken considered this for a long moment, turning it over in his mind. Finally he peered up at Schuldich. "It still looks wrong," he said, and started back towards the car with Schuldich on his heels. He squished the uneasiness at the disappearance of the shop he had worked at for the past several years with some difficulty, shoving the sight to the back of his mind so he would not have to deal with it right now. This time Ken paid careful attention to where he was driving, and managed to get them back to the apartment. The elevator was quick in coming; there were not many using it at this hour.

    Schuldich chucked his keys carelessly to one side when they entered the apartment. Ken plucked them up from the ground and moved to hang them up on their hook as the German disappeared into the den. Ken closed the front door and padded after his friend. The artist was studying the stereo thoughtfully. Ken came up beside him, hand out in offering. "I'll take your jacket back to the bedroom," he suggested.

    Schuldich looked towards him, considering this. "I can get it…"

    "I'm going back there anyway to change shirts. This one isn't going to be warm enough once I put my own coat away."

    "It might be," Schuldich answered, one side of his mouth curling up in a faint smile as he shrugged out of his coat.

    Ken took it from him and left the room, padding down to the bedroom. Both jackets were hung carefully in the closet. As he pulled a long-sleeved shirt from a hanger, his ears picked up on the sound of a loud scraping. Frowning, he stepped into the hall briefly to listen and decided it was coming from the den. Wondering what the German was up to, he peeled his shirt off and tossed it into the laundry basket. He was tugging the new shirt when music spilled through the air, the bass pulsing without being painfully loud.

    The voice was female, and foreign- English [2]. Smiling a bit at Schuldich's unexpected choice of music, Ken headed back down the hall to the den. He froze in the doorway, brown eyes locking on Schuldich's form, his mouth open but the words forgotten.

    The furniture had been moved back to clear a large free spot in the middle of the room. The German was lost in the song that blared from the speakers. His eyes were closed, his expression almost desirous in its love for the music that was sweeping across him. He moved with a liquid grace as he danced. Ken had seen Yohji dance before, but it had never looked like this. With Schuldich, it was different…Without his jacket, Schuldich was wearing a skin-tight hazy black shirt tucked into form-fitting black jeans. Orange hair spilled across his face, over his shoulders, down his back, a brilliant contrast to his outfit. Watching him as he moved, Ken wondered at the way his mouth had gone dry.

    Blue eyes opened slowly to meet Ken's, and a slow, lazy smile curled Schuldich's lips when he saw the younger man was watching him. "Enjoying the show?" he asked, a hint of amusement coloring his words.

    "Yes," Ken answered without thinking.

    Schuldich blinked, then laughed softly and extended a hand in invitation. "Dance with me."

    "I don't know how…" But Ken was already moving forward, taking slow steps towards Schuldich, hand out to take Schuldich's offered one.

    "There's nobody watching you but me," Schuldich soothed him, and Ken found himself comforted by those words. He allowed Schuldich to pull him forward, feeling himself relax, as if Schuldich's words were all it took to banish his reservations. Schuldich's other hand dropped to Ken's waist, fingers closing lightly on his hip to help draw the brunette closer.

    Ken moved where Schuldich pulled, trying to ignore the way his heart seemed to be tripping over itself in his chest. Schuldich was warm; Ken could feel the heat from his body. He could smell the German's faint cologne, an intriguing scent that seemed to be uniquely Schuldich. His nerves were on end; Schuldich's fingers on his hip were burning him, somehow. He allowed Schuldich to guide his hand up to the German's shoulders, and he raised his other hand to lace his fingers behind Schuldich's neck. Schuldich's free hand settled on Ken's other hip. Ken swallowed hard, fixing his eyes on his companion's throat because he didn't think he could meet that blue gaze right now.

    "Close your eyes…" Schuldich murmured in his ear, and Ken obeyed. Cool locks of Schuldich's hair brushed against his cheek as Schuldich pressed his own cheek to Ken's temple. "Listen," he said, just as softly. "Find the beat, and follow it." He guided Ken with his hands, rocking him until he was moving in time to the bass. "Don't think; just move."

    Giving up thinking was easy; coherent thought vanished as Ken's senses reeled. He and Schuldich moved together, close enough that now and then their chests brushed. Ken allowed Schuldich to lead him, moving with the German as they moved back and forth. Up the room, down the room, turning, swaying, the music enfolding them, a blanket that kept out everything else. This was just them, just Schuldich and Ken in these moments. Schuldich slid his hands up Ken's side, leaving a thrumming tingle where his palms brushed. He laced his fingers through Ken's, letting their arms fall to their sides. Ken allowed his head to fall forward just enough that his forehead touched Schuldich's shoulder. He could feel the artist's cool breath on his throat, and the sensation made him fight back a shiver.

    They were pressed up against each other, moving as one, fitting perfectly to each other. Ken basked in the feeling, searching for the feel of Schuldich's heartbeat against his chest. His eyes slid open when he realized that their hearts were beating in time.

    He tilted his head back, meeting Schuldich's gaze. Time froze around them as they stared at each other, each swallowed by the intensity of the other's eyes. The last notes of the music faded away, leaving silence in its wake. A curl of anticipation trickled through Ken when Schuldich's gaze lowered to his mouth.

    "Don't," he whispered.

    "Why?" Schuldich asked, just as quiet.

    "Because you'll regret it," Ken answered.

    "No," Schuldich said, blue eyes sliding up to meet Ken's once more. "I won't."

    Ken's breath caught in his throat; any other words of resistance died on his tongue. It was hard to argue against something he so painfully wanted. He could only stare up at Schuldich with wide eyes as the German closed the distance between them.

    For the second time, Ken's mind ordered him frantically away. For the second time, he ignored the command and gave himself over to the thrill and passion that was Schuldich's kiss. He couldn't pull away. He couldn't fight it. He could only give everything he was up to it and hope it would never end. Being kissed was like swallowing fire; the flame that was Schuldich was invading him, sending raw heat through his blood. It consumed his thoughts the way it consumed his entire being, pulling everything that he was into it. He felt light headed when Schuldich finally drew back, and his lips were tingling.

    "You shouldn't do that…" he protested, but he could not get the words out louder than a whisper. "I'm not your Ken."

    "You're not," Schuldich agreed, equally quiet. He hadn't released Ken's hands, and Ken was grateful for that. The rest of him felt cold enough now that Schuldich had pulled back. "I knew who I was kissing."

    "What is he going to do when he comes back and learns you kissed someone else?" Ken asked, struggling to get his scattered wits back together. "What am _I_ going to do when I go back?" he asked. The fire was quickly chilling to ice, an ice that squeezed his heart in a cruel grip. What _was_ he going to do? He had wished so desperately to return home when he had first gotten here. He had dreamed of seeing his friends the way he knew them. He had longed to go back to something that was normal for him.

    But he had not really admitted that going back would mean leaving Schuldich here, and that bit of truth was cutting deeply now.

    How could he leave Schuldich behind? How could he leave him here and return to that mocking bastard of Schwarz? The Schuldich here…Ken really couldn't describe him. It sounded almost foolishly sentimental to declare that Schuldich was perfect, but he was. He was the perfect companion. He was what Ken had never thought he would be able to find. Ken had fallen without even realizing that he had stepped off the ledge. Schuldich was everything Ken could ever want, and he was everything Ken could never have. When Ken left, this Schuldich would stay here.

    Because this Schuldich didn't belong to him. Schuldich loved another.

    And that hurt so much.

    Schuldich was quiet for a long moment and Ken stared back at him, unable to look away even though it hurt to look at him. Schuldich finally lowered his eyes, and Ken tried to pull out of his grip. Schuldich refused to release him, and Ken didn't have the strength to struggle again. "Let me go…I'll go back to the library. The list is almost done; what we're looking for has to be there."

    "Why are you in such a hurry to go?" Schuldich asked.

    "I have to go. Your Ken needs to come back to you _now_."

    "My art show is tomorrow." Schuldich lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Why rush him home to see something he cares nothing for?"

    "Schuldich, he's trapped in my world. You've seen what it's like, with your gift. It's a nightmare. It's twisted darkness and death. He shouldn't have to see that. He can't see that. The friends he has here are different, as twisted to him as these people here are to me. They're darker, harder. They cling to hope with their fingernails. And Schwarz…Half of his friends are against him, a group of psychotic killers. You're cruel there, Schuldich. What will happen to him when he realizes his lover is a heartless bastard?"

    "About time the tables were turned, isn't it?" Schuldich asked, and there was a sharp edge to his words.

    Ken said nothing; the barely contained anger in Schuldich's voice took his breath away. He stared at Schuldich, unable to come up with any sort of response. The anger swirled into Schuldich's eyes, a frustrated darkness. The artist released him, taking a step away from Ken. Schuldich's mouth thinned as he struggled to control himself. It was an obvious fight, but at length, Schuldich's expression cleared.

    "Schuldich…?" Ken asked gently.

    Schuldich reached up with his free hand, closing his fingers around the end of Ken's glove. Slowly he peeled it free, sliding it down the length of Ken's arm and tugging it carefully off of the athlete's fingers. His free hand raised, cupping Ken's elbow and turning the boy's arm so that the glaring white scar stared up at them. Schuldich studied it in silence. Ken looked from it to Schuldich's face, dropping his attention to his arm once more as Schuldich trailed a finger slowly down it.

    "Farfarello was speaking the truth this morning," Schuldich said, voice soft once more. "You have no clue what you've fallen into the middle of, and it's not fair to anyone involved. To have you understand would cause even more problems, however..." He folded his arms across his chest tightly. Ken slowly dropped his arm, trying to ignore the way his skin tingled from Schuldich's touch. Finally Schuldich looked up, meeting Ken's gaze. His blue eyes were calm, unreadable. "You've complained that I tell you nothing, that I give you mixed answers and half truths. This time I won't, and perhaps from now on you'll be grateful to not hear the full truth. I'm going to tell you a story about a boy."

    Answers; Ken was finally going to get answers. So why did he suddenly wish he had never opened his mouth?

    "You knew a Kase in your world. You've mentioned him, and I saw him in your mind when you were trying to convince me of who you were. He was an important part of your life, and his ghost still haunts you. He was your best friend, the one you trusted more than anything, and then he betrayed you." Ken looked away, something inside of him clenching at the mention of his murdered friend. Schuldich ignored the way his words were bothering the other man. "There was a Kase here, too.

    "Ken and Kase grew up together…They did everything together, best friends through everything. They were as close as any two friends could ever get, but it wasn't enough. Ken wanted more. No…'Want' would be the wrong term. He needed more. Ken tended to put all of his eggs in one basket. When he gave his trust to someone, he gave them all of it. Unwavering loyalty, steadfast companionship, everything anyone could want or ask for. Seeing as how he gave Kase everything that he was, it was no surprise when Ken found himself head over heels for his friend. He loved Kase with every fiber of his being, and he needed to be loved in return."

    Schuldich gave a slight shake of his head. "Kase knew this, but he was more hesitant than Ken about entering a relationship. As devoted as he was to Ken, he worried about what others might think. Ken didn't care what others thought. He knew what he wanted, and he would have it. When Kase continued to be difficult, Ken decided that he would show Kase that the other man wanted him." There was a pause. "I knew him by this time. Crawford had been observing him for a while, interested in making him a part of the Snipers. I accompanied him to Ken's games, and to the interviews and negotiations with Ken's guardians. I knew what Ken felt for Kase. I could hear it, I could hear how devoted the boy was to his friend. But that didn't stop me from liking what I saw."

    A mirthless smirk tugged at the corner of Schuldich's mouth. "Ken was not like anyone I had ever met. He had a fire to him that was just purely Ken. He was full of life and good humor, and though I should have stayed away, I couldn't." He let out a soft sigh and lifted a hand, studying the black glove that dangled from his fingertips. "Ken knew this, and he decided to use this to help him get Kase. I knew what he was doing, but I didn't really care. I didn't think it would be enough to bother me when he left for Kase. When he offered his bed, I accepted." His lips thinned briefly before relaxing again. "Bingo," he murmured. "Worked like a charm. It got Kase's attention quicker than anything else, and before you could say 'Fuck me,' Kase claimed what was his."

    Schuldich gave a slight shrug. "And life went on. Ken joined the Snipers. He wanted Kase on the team, but Crawford didn't agree. Kase was skilled, yes, but not enough to make the cut. He finally did give in and offer Kase a spot- even though it was mostly as a bench warmer- simply to keep Ken off the road so often. Ken spent every moment away from the team with Kase, and Crawford didn't like him traveling around so much. So Ken and Kase were both here, and things were good for a while.

    "Then there was the party…" Schuldich's fingers clenched on the glove he was holding. "A year and a half ago, everyone gathered here to celebrate a victory. Most of Japan had been betting against our team, but they had come out on top with an incredible win. There was so much alcohol, so much celebration." Fingers twisted the material as Schuldich's knuckles turned white. Ken wanted to reach out and touch his hand, but he couldn't move from his spot. "And then there was the accident…" He took a deep breath. "Ken and Kase slipped out, wandering away to finish their celebrations elsewhere. They never made it home. They got in a horrible car wreck just a few miles from Crawford's house. Ken walked away with bruises and a few broken ribs. Kase never left the hospital."

    Ken gave a soft, horrified gasp. Schuldich threw the glove to one side, as if he suddenly hated the touch of it. "Ken slit his wrists the next night. He slit his fucking wrists and tried to die. He couldn't live without Kase. He didn't want to."

    "You saved him…" Ken whispered, not really knowing why he was saying it, but somehow believing it was true.

    "He wanted to die…" Schuldich breathed, staring at a memory only he could see. "But I was selfish, and I refused to let him go. Oh, how he hated me for that…He still hates me for it. I was the one that kept him from Kase, but he did not have the strength to try it twice. He was devastated, a hollow shell without Kase. Idiot me…I thought perhaps I could help. I thought perhaps I could give him what he needed to get back on his feet again. Turns out I was nothing more than convenient company, something to tolerate and blame." Schuldich gave a sharp laugh that cut Ken straight to his heart. "He did live, but he was never the same again. He changed with Kase's death…He warped. He's never recovered. And ever since Ran entered the picture…" Schuldich's lips curled into a scowl. "Ken's ready to try and live again, but he wants to live for Ran, if Ran will let him. But Ran won't. Ran has Omi, and he's happy with Omi, but Ken won't give up. Lucky for Ken that Omi hasn't found out yet…Lucky indeed…Why do you think I taught Ken to shield? It's hard to sleep with someone when their thoughts are moaning 'Kase, Kase, Ran, Ran'." He bit off the last words with a violent wrench in his voice.

    Ken's mouth opened, then shut soundlessly. He wasn't sure what to say to the story. He wasn't sure there were words for it, for this growing sense of utter despair. "You…" he finally managed to choke out. "You and Ken…"

    Schuldich said nothing. He gazed down at the floor, lost in his own thoughts. Ken's mind had exploded in chaos, all sliced through with a sharp pain. The relationship he had seen for Schuldich, that had evolved from Ken giving everything to a mutual one, had shifted again. This was worse. This was much worse. Everything Schuldich did, every word he spoke, everything about him spoke of a deep commitment to his Ken. And Ken cared nothing for him in return…

    And Ken understood, then: far too much, far too late.

    "You lied to me…" Ken finally managed to get out, and his voice was shaking. "When I first got here, you were bothered that I looked at you with hate."

    "It was a different sort of hate," Schuldich answered absently. "You hated me for who I was. He hates me for what I've done to him. He'll live with me, he'll sleep with me, he'll put on the happy face for others so that they think everything's all right. But I can never forget, and he'll never forget. It's funny for him, that I can't let go."

    "What you've done to him…" Ken almost choked on the words. "You stopped him from throwing his life away. Any friend would have done that for someone they cared about."

    "Crawford told me to let him go."

    Ken's mind was reeling. "What?" he asked blankly.

    "Crawford told me not to stop him."

    "He would have let Ken die?"

    "The world loves Hidaka Ken, goalie of the Snipers." A hollow smirk curled Schuldich's lips. "Crawford himself puts up with the boy because he is talented and for my sake. He has been wishing Ken would drop dead since the day I stopped Ken from dying. He saw what would happen if Ken were to live. He saw what he would turn into, he saw what Ken would be like. He urged me to just forget about Ken and let him go, but I wouldn't listen to him." Schuldich tilted his head to one side, gaze distant. "I couldn't let him go, even when I knew that I could never have him. You reap what you sow…Our being together now is his punishment for me, for my greediness that night."

    Schuldich's eyes slowly raised to meet Ken's. "Then you came…" he murmured. "A year and a half of living with the consequences, and you show up. You're what he used to be, almost. There is a darker edge there, but you are also stronger. You are more than what he was. You're what I thought he was, when I pulled him to my side so selfishly. You're what…I wanted him to be. Do you have any idea how strange it is, to think that you appreciate my art, to think that you actually give a damn about what I think? You've changed everything. It won't be enough to have him, anymore."

    Ken closed his eyes, fighting back a vicious pain in his chest. This was what Schuldich had gone through…? The look in Schuldich's eyes this morning...A finger traced his cheek and Ken forced his eyes open, though he was afraid to look at Schuldich again. "And…" Schuldich added, voice light, "you're going to leave, too."

    "Stop…" Ken pleaded. It was hard to breathe through the agony shredding him apart from the inside out. He dove forward, wrapping his arms around Schuldich's neck and burying his face in the other man's throat. "Stop, stop, stop…" He couldn't bear to hear any more.

    Two arms wrapped around his waist, tugging him closer, until he was almost crushed against the other man. Ken closed his eyes as tight as they could go, pressing himself as close to Schuldich as he could get. He heard Schuldich's shuddery breath by his ear as they held on tight to each other. Ken loathed his other self with everything that he had, everything that he was. He hated the other Ken for doing this to Schuldich, for treating Schuldich this way.

    "Now would not be a good time, then," Ken said, voice cracking on the words, "to say that I think I'm falling in love with you…"

    "Fuck…" was all Schuldich could say in response as his arms tightened around Ken's slim figure, an expletive that was a strangled mix between pained and wondering. "Now that's something I never thought I'd hear…"

Part 8

[1] I did a search on the internet to make sure there was a German restaurant in Tokyo...The one Ken and Schuldich eat at really does exist.

[2] This scene was written under the influence of Celine Dion's "I Drove All Night." It started playing, and the image of Schuldich dancing to it would not leave me alone.