"How are the stars tonight, boys?" Omi asked cheerfully.
"I'm too busy worrying about freezing my ass off to admire the sky," Yohji answered dryly.
Ken reached up, pressing a finger to the com unit beside his ear. "How's it coming, Omi?" he asked, barely a murmur. He didn't have to worry about the volume of his whisper; the headsets they were using were advanced enough to pick up on the smallest of noises. Manx had given them the set, knowing they would need such technology on their missions when a whisper could mean the difference between an oblivious guard and detection. The brunette shifted his position ever so slightly, trying not to rustle the bushes to either side of him. His breath was a white cloud in front of his face as he studied their target location.
"Almost there…" Omi answered. "Abyssinian, how's your side looking?"
"Heavily guarded, but the guards are looking bored."
"Shoot, I'd be bored if I had to stand on twelve hour shifts out here," Yohji replied. Ken could hear the familiar click of his lighter over the intercom and gave a slight shake of his head in helpless amusement.
"No smoking, Balinese," Omi chided him. "Not on a mission." Yohji sighed heavily in response, but the sound was covered up by Omi's next words. "All right…On my mark, ne? Let's go."
Ken's fingers clenched in his gloves expectantly. He shifted again, feeling the adrenaline of anticipation curl up his spine. This would be very tricky…The building they were trying to infiltrate was placed halfway up a hill, giving the bastards a nice vantage point. It was hard to sneak up on someone when their guards could spot anyone who left the bushes to dart up the grassy slopes. Not that these people thought they would ever have to face such a problem…They had made themselves very popular in the underworld, and had too few enemies to truly worry about any problems.
What a shame Kritiker didn't look so favorably upon them.
Just then the lights on the second floor gave a brilliant flash and exploded. Every window on the second floor shattered and glass shards rained outwards and down, crackling like lightning and rain as they fell to the ground. The guards that circled the place whirled, looking upwards in stunned alarm before ducking to cover their heads from the grass.
Ken lunged forward, tearing out of the bushes and racing uphill. The grass and the sound of more explosions helped to dull his footsteps. His blades hissed outwards from his gloves and he was among the cowering guards in just seconds. Yells filled the air, broken with gunfire from the other sides where Aya and Yohji were wreaking chaos. Ken took down two before the others realized what was going on. He grabbed one as a shield just as another started firing at him, and sent the bullet ridden body towards the gunman with a fierce kick. The last lunged towards him, gun swinging, intending to use it like a club. It was almost too easy to dodge the attack and his blades sank deep into the man's stomach, shredding everything it came in contact with inside.
The gunman was struggling to get his fallen companion off of him. His gun was trapped under the corpse's dead weight and he cursed fluidly as Ken turned on him. He didn't even have time to scream before he was dead.
Ken reached up and touched his intercom. "All's clear on this side, Bombay."
There wasn't an answer, but that was all right. Omi was probably distracted. Ken moved towards the building. "Abyssinian, Balinese, need a hand?" That was unlikely; they were both experts at what they did.
There was no answer. He frowned faintly. The gunfire had died; the place was completely silent.
A cold chill settled in his stomach. "Balinese? Abyssinian? Bombay?" Nothing. "Somebody answer me!" He started towards the closest side, where Yohji had been assigned. His legs were aching to run but he forced himself to move slowly. If Yohji was in trouble, Ken would do him no good to burst onto the scene and get himself shot by uptight guards.
He reached the corner and peered around it slowly, cautiously. The side was completely empty- no guards, no Yohji.
"Balinese?" Ken tried again, not caring if he was heard anymore. "Yohji! Where are you?"
He whirled around, thinking perhaps to check Aya's side, and came to a dead halt.
There were his friends.
They were stretched out before him, sprawled on their backs on the grass where the guards he had massacred had just been. Ken felt bile rise in his throat and he took an unsteady step forward. Then he was staggering towards them, mind screaming an alarm. He stood over their mangled bodies, staring down with wide eyes as horror burned his heart. His friends, his teammates- oh God oh God oh God they weren't moving they were so still and there was so much blood-
Omi gave a heaving gasp then and his blue eyes slid open. Tears tracked down his cheeks; his eyes glimmered with pain. "K-Ken-kun….."
Ken dropped to his knees beside him, grabbing his hand in a tight grip. "Oh, God, Omi, don't talk. Don't talk. I need to get you out of here. I need to get you guys to a hospital." Brown eyes ran over the blood that seemed to be a second skin to the other boy. His clothes were shredded, torn by bullets and blades. Through the material Ken could see that his body had been badly torn. His breathing was weak and ragged, and there was a liquid undertone to it. Ken could feel a scream pushing at his throat. He looked around wildly, almost as if he expected a hospital to appear out of nowhere.
"K-Ken-kun…" Omi whispered, eyes sliding closed. "Where were you? Where were you…when we needed…you…Ken?" He gave a shuddering gasp then and collapsed back against the ground, fingers slipping from Ken's so that his arm dropped limply to the ground.
Ken shot up from the mattress with a strangled cry on his lips.
His heart was pounding as his surroundings registered. His cheeks were damp and he reached up to scrub at them, taking several shuddering breaths to try and calm himself. He felt sick to his stomach, sick to his soul. His friends…his teammates…
He could place that mission…That was the one they had gone on before they had found the mirror. It had been very difficult; they had all walked away scratched and bruised. In Ran's case, he had limped away with an ankle that had just barely avoided being broken.
He let out a slow breath, reaching up to rub his forehead. The pain of seeing their maimed bodies still haunted him, pulling at his heart. It was not the first time he had had such nightmares; he had had them frequently when he was with Weiß.
"Where was I when you needed me?" Ken whispered aloud, directing the question towards the Omi he had watched die in his nightmare. A chill ran down his spine and he looked around the room. His gaze settled on Schuldich. The telepath was still asleep, perhaps still too drained from the art show to be bothered by Ken's nightmare. Ken was grateful; he didn't want Schuldich to have seen that with him.
"Where was I?" he asked. "Right here…"
He slid from bed, moving carefully so as not to disturb Schuldich. He glanced towards the clock on the bedside table. It was a little after one. He raked his hair out of his face and moved towards the door. He paused in the doorway to glance back at Schuldich, then vanished into the hall on silent footsteps.
The house was dead; everyone was asleep by now.
Ken folded his arms over his chest as he padded down the hall. Moonlight spilled through the windows to cast a surreal glow, and he paused in front of one to allow its silver shine to light up his skin. He gazed out, staring up at the sky. The stars were faint; they were too close to Tokyo to get a good view. He sighed softly, leaning forward and resting his forehead against the cold glass.
He almost jumped out of his skin when he spotted the glowing white person standing by the fountain in Crawford's yard. It took him a moment to realize it was Farfarello and he chided himself for reacting in such a way. The light from the full moon did wonders to the Irishman's pale skin, accenting it more than it would ever be able to do Ken's. He studied the pianist for a long time.
For some reason, Schuldich's words came to mind:
"I just thought you should know that someone else knows the truth, which means that if you ever don’t feel like talking to me you can talk to him.”
He hesitated, considering this. Then, before he could talk himself out of it, he turned and headed for the stairwell.
The evening breeze was cool and Ken hugged his arms tighter against himself, half-wishing he had thought to put the top half of his pajama set on before venturing outside. His footsteps were almost silent as he picked his way across the lawn towards the Irish teenager. He paused beside the rose bushes that encircled the fountain, eyeing Farfarello uncertainly. The man had moved in the time it took Ken to get outside; now he was crouched beside the fountain. His arms were folded on the stone wall and he was resting his chin on them, gazing at the gently swirling water.
"Hey…" Ken spoke up softly.
The Irishman glanced over his shoulder. He didn't look particularly surprised to see Ken, though the athlete knew the musician couldn't have heard him approach over the wind and sound of the fountain.
"Morning," Farfarello said. It was a simple, easy greeting that neither encouraged nor dissuaded conversation. It was a casual greeting, almost, as if it wasn't odd that they were both up and outside in the middle of the night.
Ken shifted uncertainly. "Mind if I join you?" he asked, unwilling to approach if Farfarello didn't want to bother with him. Farfarello was Schuldich's friend, after all. Ken had no idea with the man thought of him or the Ken that had been here before him…though he was willing to bet the other teenager didn't have a favorable opinion of the one who had hurt his friend so deeply.
Farfarello lifted his chin enough to make a small gesture with his fingers, indicating the spot beside him. He watched calmly as Ken moved forward. Even walking seemed awkward with the man watching him like that, Ken decided nervously. He slowly, carefully knelt beside the man, deciding to sit on the side Farfarello could see on.
"You are unhappy," Farfarello observed, turning his attention back to the fountain. He stretched an arm out, letting his fingers dance on the surface of the water.
"I had a nightmare," Ken answered quietly, studying the reflection of the moon on the water. Farfarello said nothing. Ken wondered whether or not to elaborate. Could he really talk to Farfarello? Schuldich had said he was a good listener; he had assured Ken that Farfarello would listen. But would Farfarello, or was that a favor extended only to his closest friend and confidante?
"You are also," Farfarello noted, "nervous." Ken said nothing. Farfarello continued, being careful how he picked his words. Ken remembered being annoyed with his slow speech when he had first arrived, remembered how irritating he had found it to listen to the Irishman. Now as he listened to the man talk, he could detect a flowing grace connecting his words. Despite the problems he had speaking, he could at least make it sound pretty. The lilting accent that had seemed to mar his words that first night now just seemed to make it musical, a song to go with his piano. "I am not the one you feared there. Is that enough?"
"It is," Ken said, "and it isn't." He wasn't sure how to explain his nervousness around the Irishman. "You're Schuldich's closest friend…But you fought with him over me. You don't want me here."
Farfarello turned so that he was facing the athlete. Ken mirrored the movement so they were face-to-face. "Do you want to be here?" he asked.
Ken opened his mouth, ready to say "Of course," but the words died on his tongue. Farfarello tilted his head to one and lifted a finger. "Ah," he said, sounding unsurprised at Ken's inability to answer quickly. "Schuldich told me about your place. He told me of your world and what you left behind. He likened your life to a horror film. Madness. Chaos. Blood. Death." Farfarello leaned backwards slightly, studying Ken through a hooded eye. "But also friends."
Ken looked down at where he had folded his hands together in his lap. "I had a nightmare about them tonight…" he said. "We went on a mission, but it ended up with them dead. They were killed because I wasn't there to help them. They were killed because I was here…" He fought back the nausea that threatened to rise, fought back the image of their mangled bodies. "We have missions that just one or two of us can take…but we also have many that need all four. There are some where it would be suicide if anything were to go wrong: a guard missed, an alarm still active, a team member absent…" His lips tightened to a thin line and his fingers clenched tightly against each other.
"I worry for them. I worry that they are stuck with the other Ken, that they cannot count on him for their missions. If one comes up that requires a fourth member, things could go terribly wrong. Then there's Schwarz to worry about…They're always a threat. They've let us live so far for amusement and for scapegoats, but what happens when they decide we're more an annoyance than entertainment? If it comes to that, I don't think my presence would do anything to help them, but to stay here and think that it might happen and I wouldn't be there to do something…" He exhaled shakily and gave a sharp shake of his head.
"So you would leave."
A pained frown twisted Ken's face, echoed by a twisting of his heart. "I can't leave Schuldich. I can't…I don't know what to do. I'm so worried about my friends, but I cannot just forget Schuldich and return to them. It feels as if my heart is torn in half, and I don't know which way to go. No matter which side of the mirror I'm on, I'll long for the other. I wish I could just have both…" he whispered brokenly.
Farfarello dipped his fingers in the water and reached out, touching his finger lightly to Ken's cheekbone. A drop of water ran from his fingertip down Ken's cheek, an artificial tear. Ken looked away.
"You must go back through the mirror," Farfarello told him. Ken couldn't make himself look back at the Irishman. "You know it. Deep inside…You feel it. You are trying to weigh and judge the lives of three people against your own happiness. You know it but cannot say it because you fear it, you fear what you think it means."
Ken said nothing. A sick feeling of despair washed through him, choking him.
"You will go through," Farfarello said. "That is decided. Now you choose. Will you do it alone?"
Ken hesitated, then turned a questioning, hesitant look on him. He searched Farfarello's unreadable gaze. Farfarello said nothing else, waiting for a response from Ken. "Will I do it alone?" he echoed. "How else could I do it?" Realization of what Farfarello was suggesting hit. "Take Schuldich with me…? I couldn't do that!" he said breathlessly. Farfarello was silent. "The Schuldich of the other world is with Schwarz. That is where Schuldich would end up- with them. With that band of psychotic demons who take pleasure in slaughtering both the innocent and the guilty."
"And he is chained at all times, of course," Farfarello said.
Ken frowned faintly. "No, he's not…"
Farfarello was quiet again, and Ken decided the man was waiting once more for him to draw his own conclusions. He tried to force himself to think past the initial horror of the mere suggestion of Schwarz getting their slimy hands on _his_ Schuldich. Schuldich was the one his team saw the most of, almost as if he had the most freedom. He was often out on his own, and had confronted them several times by himself.
A crazy idea was beginning to form, and Ken's eyes widened. "If he could just play along with them for a little while, it wouldn't be much trouble for him to get away. But…" The flickering of hope died. "What would I do? My teammates would love to kill Schuldich if he ever gave them the option…" He could just imagine how an introduction would go between his team and his Schuldich. Then again, now that they had dealt with the bastard Ken, perhaps they would be more open to the idea of a changed Schuldich from through the mirror. It would take a while before they would accept him, but maybe it wasn't a hopeless thought…?
"My team might be all right, eventually. But Schwarz wouldn't let him go," Ken said, giving a small shake of his head. "There's no way Schwarz would just let their telepath abandon them. What if they killed him for running? They wouldn't want Weiß to have someone with his power. They wouldn't want him with us."
After a long moment, Farfarello turned towards the fountain again and lowered his fingers to wiggle the tips just under the surface of the water. "You have answered the two questions," he said. "Yes. No. Simple. Details are later. Bridges." He considered that for a moment, trying to remember the phrase. "When you come to that bridge," he said at last, "worry."
Ken was quiet, turning the Irishman's words over in his head. Yes, he would leave. No, he would not do it alone. Perhaps he could wait until they were through to worry about Schwarz. The two could get Schuldich away from them and then figure out how to keep him from the black assassins. One could never plan ahead when dealing with Schwarz, anyway. They weren't predictable and Crawford could read the future. And perhaps…Perhaps he could cling to the faintest hope that Schwarz would not kill Schuldich if they figured him out. Schwarz and Weiß had still found their individual groups and each other, even in a different reality. The groups were tight knit. Schwarz had pulled its members to each other…Eight years, hadn't Schuldich said, that he had known Crawford and Nagi? And Farfarello, though he was a recent addition, carried Schuldich on one side and Nagi on the other. If they could find each other in an alternate reality and cling so tight…If that could be any sign at all for something holding them together on the other side besides their insanity…Perhaps they would hesitate to kill their telepath. Not likely, but a faint hope.
There were a lot of perhaps. He shoved Schwarz from mind firmly. Farfarello had said not to worry about it now.
"Would Schuldich even want to leave?" he asked.
"Would he let you leave him?" Farfarello returned.
"But he's just had his coming out show. He's just made a tremendous leap with his career. His entire life is here…His home, his memories, his friends- Why would he want to leave any of it?" If he asked Schuldich to come with him, he would be asking Schuldich to turn his back on everything. How could he ask such a thing?
"For you." Farfarello slid his fingers deeper into the water. The ripples from his movements were blurring and breaking the image of the moon, making the surface seem to sparkle.
"And would you really be all right to let him go?" Ken asked. In his mind, he saw Farfarello finding Brianna's picture, sinking to his knees because he could not stand, clinging to Schuldich's pants with one fist. He saw Farfarello through Schuldich's words, a man who had lost so much and had finally found someone who could understand him fully and completely. He saw Farfarello at his performance, saw his trembling form as he touched upon what he had lost in his music, saw Schuldich watching the man intently to make sure he was all right. It was a bond between minds close enough that once Ken had watched Schuldich half get lost in Farfarello's side, rubbing his fingers in an absent attempt to get the feeling back in them.
"The Schuldich that would come here, the one that would switch over to replace your friend, is a demon. He's a heartless bastard. He uses his gift to tear people apart. He has a cruel laugh and eyes of ice. Could you watch your friend be replaced by that?"
"Could I watch him?" Farfarello asked.
"Yes." He needed to make sure Farfarello understood what he was giving his consent to. Farfarello depended on Schuldich, and he would lose that support once Schuldich went through the mirror. Ken did not want to make Farfarello change his mind about encouraging Schuldich to go, but he did want to make sure Farfarello would be all right here.
"I knew Ken," Farfarello said, looking sideways at Ken. He had switched to English. Ken took that as a sign to mean that what the Irishman was going to say was so important to him that he did not want to lose it in his slow translation. It made speaking easier for him, but he continued to keep a slow pace so Ken could catch every word. "I met him two weeks before Kase died. I saw him then. They used to be friends, Schuldich, Kase, and Ken. Ken made sure they stayed friends. He knew how Schuldich felt; he liked having the two people pay him so much attention. He pushed the lines a bit, careful to keep Schuldich's interest, giving him an unconscious hope. I saw Ken fall when Kase died. Crawford was ready to give him up then- something he Saw. He and Schuldich fought about it, but Schuldich wouldn't let go."
Ken's eyes lowered to where his fingers were interlaced in his lap, studying the way the moonlight lit his skin as Farfarello continued. "Ken hated everyone, everything. He had lost what he most depended on. Schuldich could not leave him alone. He refused to watch Ken crumble and did everything to help him. He could see a person in Ken that was dying, that Crawford would not help him to save. I supported him. I took his side over Crawford's. I thought he would be enough."
He clucked his tongue against his teeth. "They used to fight in the first months. Ken wanted to let go. Schuldich wouldn't let him. Bitter, bitter fights. Angry voices, dark words, violent threats. Hate and love, despair and hope. It became a dangerous game between them. Schuldich could not sleep for fear of Ken trying something. I told him to tie Ken up at night. He refused to do more than bind his hands. He trapped himself. He did everything for Ken. Watched every move, followed every thought, heard every word. Cooked for Ken. Fed Ken. Brought him things. Listened to him, talked to him."
Farfarello drew his hands from the water and lowered them to his lap, slowly sinking from a crouch to rest on his bent legs. "Ken caught on. It took him two months, but he caught on. He demanded privacy from Schuldich's vigilant watch and demanded protection. Schuldich told me he gave Ken a screen, so Ken could choose to hide thoughts. Ken began to finally heal. Schuldich rejoiced and Ken stayed with him. I realized I had sided wrong and told him so. He wouldn't believe me. They seemed close, but in a different way from with Kase. Ken said what he wanted and Schuldich gave it to him, blind in his relief that Ken had lost his desire to die, fooled by Ken's random affectionate attentions. But he had to wake up when Ran was introduced to the group, because Ken made no secret of his interests and his games with Schuldich took on a more obvious cruelty."
Farfarello studied the water, watching as its surface slowly calmed. Ken watched him, caught by every word the man said. He was hearing what Schuldich had told him, but from Farfarello the same story was made different, twisted deeper. The mental image of Ken-other was deepening, becoming more real. Ken could see someone like himself, sitting in a bed and watching as Schuldich- wonderful Schuldich- offered to do everything for him. From everything Ken could assume about Ken-other, it was a prize too good to pass up. "I have watched them for a year and a half. I will not watch it any more." Farfarello flicked a piercing yellow glance at him. "Take him if you wish it and let the two demons play with each other."
Ken tried to imagine the Ken-other that Schuldich and Farfarello had described attempting to push around and play games with the Schuldich from his world. He entertained the mental image of Ken-other either shot or reduced to a coma, and the thought pleased him.
But there was something wrong with the picture, something ugly that hovered just out of recognition. Something about what Farfarello had said bothered him. He had tried hard enough to analyze Schuldich's speaking that he couldn't ignore the whisper of suspicion in his mind about Farfarello. A large part of him wanted to ignore it, but he forced himself to wrack his mind, turning over what they had said to each other mentally. What was missing clicked into place and he sagged slightly, letting himself fall from his knees to his rear. A sad, hollow smile twitched on his lips. "If I wish," he echoed. The words caught in his throat. He tilted his head back, gazing up at the sky. "I've told you my side. You've assured me of Schuldich's and given me dim approval from you."
He couldn't see the clouds clearly. There was a new moisture in his eyes, burning hotly and blurring the sky. His breath was shaky. Any hope he had had about Schuldich and him died a cruel death in his heart, a knife twisting through it and into his soul. "You asked me to clarify what I was asking for. You wanted me to notice what I was overlooking. Stupid and selfish to miss it, aren't I…?" he whispered.
Farfarello was quiet. He said nothing for a long moment, then turned a considering gaze on Ken. There was a hesitation to him, but at last he moved his hands to the ground and leaned forward, tilting himself slightly towards Ken. "Ask again," he said softly.
Ken couldn't look at him. "Could you watch your friend be replaced by that…?"
"Could I watch him?" Farfarello asked.
"No." Ken wanted to choke on the word. "The plural 'you'."
Farfarello said nothing. Ken lowered his face, burying it in his hands as a terrible shudder ran down his spine. After a pause, he felt a hand touch his shoulder. It was tentative, as if the other man wasn't sure if he had the right to offer such comfort. Ken's initial reaction was to feel an angry twist of resentment. Farfarello had led him on- he hadn't stopped Ken and made sure he took everyone into account. He had allowed Ken to forget that there were so many more involved, had allowed him to nurture some hope that there was a way he and Schuldich could always be together.
He squashed that bitterness with a bit of a struggle. No. Farfarello had let him make his own decision, had allowed him to see what his heart wanted to. Farfarello had given Ken the chance to make up his own mind. It was Ken's own fault that he had screwed up, but why had Farfarello let him go so far? His heart was breaking all over again. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" he asked softly.
There was a pause, an uncertain hesitation, before the man spoke again. "I did not know if you would care."
"Of course I would!" Ken snapped, voice strangled, his head popping up so he could meet Farfarello's gaze. The Irishman released him, withdrawing his hand.
"_He_ wouldn't have," Farfarello answered quietly. "One heart beats red, the other black. Yours is the red one. When I look at you, however, I cannot see that. I can see what you do only, and sometimes I forget."
Just as Ken compared his world to this one, Farfarello had been mentally comparing him to the Ken he knew. Of course the Irishman would be a bit uncertain about his reactions and thoughts…Only Schuldich could understand him fully, because Schuldich could hear his thoughts.
"But why?" Ken asked. "How could you let me wander into a decision that would hurt so many people?"
"If you did care, you would figure it out yourself," Farfarello said. "You have. It is not up to me to make your decision for you, but to encourage you in the path you have chosen. You wished to take Schuldich with you."
Ken ran a hand across his eyes, willing himself not to cry. He was too old to cry. He was an assassin. Assassins didn't cry.
Schuldich couldn't go with him. Ken couldn't allow Schuldich to go with him. He had only counted three people in the equations of what to do. It wasn't just Farfarello that Ken was threatening to hurt. Ken's eyes slid shut and he bit his lower lip. His own words from earlier that day floated back to him:
"From what I have seen, Schuldich, I believe that you are the center knot that keeps these people connected. Congratulations…You are the heart of the group."
It wasn't just Farfarello that would lose someone when they went through the mirror. Crawford and Nagi had known Schuldich for eight years. Yohji obviously got along with him well. He and Ran schemed against Takatori together. Omi was fond of the whole group. Aya seemed fond of him as well. The soccer team was on easy terms with him. There were others surely, people like Mitsuke from the club, that Schuldich knew as well. It wasn't that he would disappear, which the group might have a faint chance of eventually adapting to…It was that he would be replaced by the psychotic and heartless German of the Schwarz-Weiß reality.
If Ken brought Schuldich with him, he would be tearing apart both Schuldich and those whose lives he had touched.
Farfarello had referred to the decision as weighing three lives with his own happiness. His own because it would tear apart everyone else.
Could he do that?
It would hurt Schuldich to go through the mirror, both in the leaving and in the world on the other side. It would hurt everyone here. Could Ken really bring the German with him? His heart ached at the thought of leaving Schuldich and it throbbed just as painfully at the thought of what the other world could do to him and his friends.
How could he ask Schuldich to follow him when there would be only him on the other side?
In the darkness of his thoughts, a voice whispered softly: "I can't…."
"Why…?" Ken whispered, feeling the first tear roll down his cheek. "Why is it such a crime to love someone…?"
Farfarello's mouth twitched in a ghost of a broken smile. "I do not know," he answered, then tilted his head to one side. "He is coming for you. He needs you. You need him."
"He's awake?" Ken couldn't get the energy to wipe the tears from his eyes.
"He has been awake," the other man answered in a soft voice. "He woke when you started having your nightmare. I heard him wake and asked him to leave you alone…He left it to me to walk you through the aftermath. He knew a decision had to be made." Ken could hear the footsteps on the ground drawing close to them. Farfarello drew in a slow breath, mouth twitching briefly into an uneasy frown. "He does not like what you have decided."
"That's enough," Schuldich said, appearing from the darkness. The moonlight cast a dull glow in his hair, turning the vibrant orange into a dull red- as if the life had been sucked from it, Ken mused morbidly. His voice was toneless, but Ken could hear a darkness roiling beneath the surface.
"You asked me to talk to him," Farfarello said simply, rising from his spot and turning to face the German. Ken couldn't get to his feet; his legs weren't working. He could do nothing but stare up at the man he loved, at the man he had just decided he must leave behind, and feel his heart shatter into a thousand pieces. He had heard the phrase often, in books and in movies, but had never truly understood the feeling behind it. Now he knew; he felt it strongly enough.
No one said anything; Ken could see the pain in his eyes as he gazed at his friend. Schuldich stared back, eyes so dark they seemed black. He was shaking faintly- shaking in some unnamed emotion as he stared down his friend by the fountain. Ken felt sick to his stomach.
"Thank you, Farfarello…" Ken managed to whisper, reaching up to take hold of one of the Irishman's hands. Both men glanced at him; Farfarello turned away first while Schuldich's eyes lingered. Ken gave the pale hand a squeeze with fingers that were trembling uncontrollably. It was a wonder he could get the words out when his chest and his throat were pulled so tight. "I answer your two questions now…Yes. Yes."
"No." It was a flat, harsh word. Schuldich took a step towards him.
Ken moved without thinking, the paralysis that had pinned him down just previously vanishing without warning. He bolted, leaping to his feet and fleeing. He didn't know where he was going; he just knew that he was running. His feet carried him past the house and he flew like the wind into the darkness. Bare feet pounded over grass and dirt. He was crying as he ran, silent tears streaking down his cheeks.
Two arms grabbed him before long, snagging him around his waist. He stumbled and they both fell, hitting the ground roughly. Ken rolled, struggling to get away. Schuldich fought back, finally managing to pin him to the ground by straddling his waist and pressing his wrists to either side. They said nothing for several moments, gazing at each other. Ken struggled for breath, struggled against the tears that were escaping him freely. He lost the battle when his face crumpled and he began to cry like he hadn't in years. He found himself buried in Schuldich's embrace and he clung to the other man desperately, blindly. Schuldich crushed Ken against him, burying his face in the athlete's shoulder.
Ken cried for everything he'd ever had and lost, every hope he'd ever watched fail. He cried for the beauty of what he felt for Schuldich and for his broken heart. He cried until he didn't have the strength to cry anymore. His fingers were digging into Schuldich's back as he pressed his face against the German's bare chest, taking shuddering breaths. He felt drained, impossibly weak.
"No," he heard Schuldich say. "I won't let you leave me here."
"You have to stay…" Ken said, unable to raise his voice more than a whisper. A part of him found it ridiculous that he could feel himself falling asleep, but the emotional rollercoaster the conversation with Farfarello had taken him on had taken all of his strength away. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore what had been decided tonight, listening to Schuldich's heartbeat.
Ken found himself laid back and Schuldich readjusted his grip, wrapping an arm under his knees and his shoulders. After a moment Schuldich stood, bringing the athlete with him. Ken blinked, startled out of his tired mind long enough to be impressed with the artist's strength. He dimly remembered being carried like this before, but the memory was muddled and just out of reach. He allowed himself to bask in the warmth and security of Schuldich's grip, tilting his head to rest his cheek against Schuldich's chest, never taking his arms from the other man.
He could feel himself falling asleep, a lethargic sinking into the blackness of his mind. He offered up a silent prayer for no more nightmares, for an oblivion that would relieve him temporarily from the pain this world had just become.
Ken wasn't sure when he woke, he just found himself studying the far side of the room with the knowledge that he had been staring at it for a while. The sunlight spilled through the large window, lighting everything up with a cheery glow. Ken offered the room and its bright happiness a mental middle finger, reaching down to run his fingers along Schuldich's arm at his waist. Slowly, carefully, he rolled over in the man's grip. Brown and blue eyes met, studying each other for a few moments in silence.
Ken opened his mouth to speak. Schuldich put a finger to his chin and closed it.
That didn't stop Ken. ~Schuldich…I have to go back through the mirror.~
/I know./ Schuldich's blue eyes were serious. /I've always known you were going back. It was only a dim hope that I would get you to stay here./
~Then you understand I have to go alone.~
/What do you want me to do, Ken? I'm not going to watch you walk away from me. If you're going, I’m going to go with you./
Schuldich was making this so much harder. ~What about your friends, Schuldich?~
/I suppose they'll have to get over it./
~Don't lie to yourself and me with such a callous answer, Schuldich.~
/You can't tell me to stay here,/ Schuldich told him. /I was told what to do for a year and a half and I did it. I'm not going to listen to you when you tell me this. Make up your own mind about going back. Don't make up mine./
Ken jerked his head away from Schuldich's finger. "You're being impossible!"
"You're being unreasonable!" the artist shot back. "What do you expect me to do? Sit on my ass and twiddle my thumbs? Nod and smile and say 'Yes, you're right, Ken, you have to go, and I have to stay behind'?"
"You don't have to twiddle your thumbs if you don't want to," Ken answered tartly.
Something violent flickered in Schuldich's eyes and Ken flinched back without thinking. The German's mouth drew into a tight line at the athlete's reaction and he sat up abruptly, sliding from the bed. Ken dug his fingers into the sheets, hands clenching into fists tight enough he thought they might draw blood. Schuldich was changing quickly, shedding the pajama pants for jeans. He yanked the nearest shirt off its hanger in the closet and tugged it on, sliding into some sandals at the same time. His car keys were sitting on the dresser, and he snatched them up as he headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" Ken asked softly.
"I need a cigarette." With that, the German was gone, the door closing loudly behind him.
Ken stared at the sheets dully for a while, feeling abandoned without really knowing why. It was a long time before he could draw himself up from the blankets, and he moved slowly as he sought out his towel. He lingered in the shower longer than he should have, hoping it would revive him somewhat. It didn't help at all and he was still left with a gloom slowing his movements as he returned to the room. Schuldich wasn't back, as Ken had half-hoped he'd be. He moved to the window, hanging onto the towel that was wrapped around his waist. The car was gone; Schuldich was still out.
A twinge of unease pulled at his heart. He didn't like the idea of Schuldich driving when he was in a bad mood.
~Schuldich?~ he called, not really expecting an answer, not knowing if the German could hear him from wherever he was. ~Schuldich, please drive carefully. Please?~
There was silence from the telepath, and Ken felt very alone in that moment. It was several minutes before he could tear his eyes from the horizon and move to get dressed. He stared blankly at the door. He wasn't interested in leaving the room. He wasn't interested in dealing with the others. A part of him wanted to resent them for their ties for Schuldich that made him have to leave the German behind. It was hard to push away that bitter envy and remind himself to be thankful that Schuldich had such wonderful friends here. They had helped craft him into the person he was today, the wonderful, caring, selfless, perfect-
He bit that train of thought of savagely, knowing that if he continued down that track he might sink to self pity again. Wallowing around feeling sorry for oneself did nothing to make it better; it made it worse through a focused concentration. His teammates had helped teach him that. He had made his decision. He couldn't back out on it. He knew what he was doing and why, and they were the right reasons.
And besides Farfarello, the others had no clue what was really going on behind the scenes. They knew nothing about the mirror. He couldn't expect them to understand how miserable he was feeling now, or why Schuldich was angry at him. He had to pull an Omi- to tuck away this darkness gnawing at his heart and put on the act they expected from him. They would continue to remain oblivious of the problems of the mirror. Soon perhaps he and Schuldich would head home again, and then Ken would have to find the mirror and say his farewell to Schuldich.
If it weren't for the knock on the door that came then, Ken was pretty sure he would have collapsed. The thought of looking Schuldich in the eye and bidding him a permanent goodbye made him dizzy and nauseous. Choking back on the dark emotions, he turned the knob and opened the door.
Yohji flashed him a peace sign. "Yo."
Ken wasn't sure where he found the smile to offer in return. He felt it pull at his lips, but that was as far as the expression affected him. "Hey," he answered. "What's up?"
"We were wondering if you two were coming to breakfast. We called to Schuldich but there wasn't an answer." Ken saw his jade eyes flick past Ken's shoulder to look into the room, a cursory glance meant to locate the uncommunicative telepath.
"He went out," Ken told Yohji, taking a step forward. The model stepped back accordingly and Ken exited the room. "Said he wanted a smoke."
"Did he?" Yohji studied Ken for a moment as the athlete closed the door. Ken turned to face him, meeting his stare coolly. He wasn't in the mood for the group's assumptions about his behavior regarding Schuldich. He was acting in the way that was best for Schuldich; the telepath just refused to admit that. This separation was bigger than just them. How could they turn their back on so many people? And what reassurance did they have that they would even be able to keep each other on the other side?
"Want to talk about it?" the older man asked at length.
Ken said nothing. Yohji blinked at Ken's calm gaze before dismissing it with a vague smile and beckoning him to follow. "We woke Aya up to make breakfast…Lazy girl hasn't started back to campus yet," he explained. There was an affectionate edge to his voice. Ken's Ran would kill him if he heard it. "Her group is still snoring in one of the guest bedrooms…They wouldn't wake when we tried to rouse them. Kids these days…"
"They're not much younger than you," Ken pointed out.
~Focus on his idle chatter. Focus on the simple things and push the mirror to the background. Think happy, simple things.~
"Details, details." Yohji waved a hand dismissively. They descended the stairs in silence, moving side by side down the steps to the first floor. Ken could hear voices as they reached the second floor. By the time they were at the base of the stairwell he could identify the speakers- Aya and Omi were chatting up a storm.
Everyone was present save for Schuldich and Farfarello. Aya was busily setting platters on the table. Yohji abandoned Ken to help her transport the food to the table like a proper gentleman, and Ken hesitated before moving to his seat.
"Where's Farfarello?" he asked, looking towards Nagi.
Nagi gave a slight frown, but it wasn't in reaction to the question. "He didn't want to come. He wouldn't get out of bed…" Here Nagi glanced towards Farfarello's seat. "I think he's having sleeping problems again. Can we get his prescription renewed?"
Crawford nodded, and Aya appeared at his elbow to set a bowl down. "He's going to miss a lovely breakfast," she pouted. "I'll have to make him a plate and someone can take it up to him. How about that?" She brightened at her own suggestion, and Nagi nodded slightly in acceptance of the idea. She turned towards Schuldich's empty seat then. "Why isn't Schuldich here? He's going to miss my food…"
"He went shopping," Ken answered her, moving at last to claim his spot at the table. "Maybe we can set some aside for him, too…" He looked around at the platters. It looked as if she had cooked enough to feed at least fifteen people, and there were only seven people present. There would definitely be enough to give Schuldich when he returned.
Whenever that was…
"Un!" Aya bobbed her head and turned to Yohji, giving him a bright smile before he could slide into his seat. "Two plates, please, and some plastic wrap."
"Of course, Aya." He abandoned his seat to fetch her requested items, and Aya wandered over to the counter to pluck up a book and a pen. She toted it back to the table and tapped her brother on the shoulder with her free hand. He glanced up and she beckoned for him to scoot his chair back. When he did, she plopped herself in his lap and offered the book.
"Here! Remember I told you that you needed to sign this. I'm going to have to get on the road soon so I need it done before Rika wakes up. Ne~, oniichan? Something about history majors, yes?"
"You're not going to drive back," Ran informed her, taking the book and pen from her offered hand.
She slid from his lap, clasping her hands behind her back and taking up a post behind him. "Awwww, Ran-chan," she pouted. "I don't like being a passenger, and my friends don't like it either. I'm a sulky passenger. I'll distract them from the road. I'm dangerous if I don't drive."
"You're a danger driving," he answered her dryly, not looking back to see the adorable pout she had pasted on her face. Instead he flicked open the cover of the book and began to write a note on the inside cover. Aya noticed that she wasn't getting anywhere and gave a heavy sigh. "I still think it's a wonder you managed to pass your driving test," Ran added.
Aya made a face. "Hidoi."
"Perhaps she threatened the tester with a high speed collision," Yohji suggested as he returned to the table. "I think I'd be influenced to let even someone like her drive if I'd been given a death threat."
"Maybe she just made puppy dog eyes at him," Omi mused.
"It works well enough on everyone else," Yohji agreed drolly.
Aya gave them all a Look. It reminded Ken of Ran and he couldn't stop a small smile from curling his lips. They were definitely related. "Were either of you hoping to eat this food?" she asked, flicking her fingers at the generously covered table.
The two backpedaled quickly, showering her with praises on her driving skills and boasts that she was the best driver they'd ever met. Aya turned to Ran with a successful smile on her lips. "See, Ran? Majority votes against you!"
Ran leveled a cool look at her as he closed the book. Aya sighed mournfully and took Farfarello's seat, sulking quietly at her place. Yohji plucked up Ran's book, flipping through it idly as everyone began to serve themselves. "The cover looks odd," he said at last, holding it across the table towards Aya. "That border is too close to the center, so it makes the picture look scrunched."
Ran accepted the drink pitcher from Omi, glancing towards the book as his younger sister set it in her lap. "It's not a border, and it's not supposed to be there, anyway. They picked a few stories to make the cover's collage, but I ended up taking out that one. There wasn't enough information; my editor asked me to remove that section. I guess the cover was overlooked, or thought not to be a big enough deal to mess with."
"I've never known you to be unable to get enough research…What story was that for?" Aya asked curiously, studying the dishes nearest her to determine which she wanted to start with.
Ran lifted his cup, pausing before filling it. "It was a story about a mirror."