P.O.D --- Payment on Delivery
Thirteen: Harsh Truths
"I didn’t like Schuldich because you believed his lies."
Schuldich only made it halfway down the hall before he slowed to a stop. From here he couldn't hear Ken, but the other man's voice echoed loudly in his head. He gazed off in the direction of the stairwell, wondering why he'd stopped, and forced himself to start moving again. He succeeded in moving just another foot before stopping and swore quietly, looking over his shoulder in the direction of Ken's room.
~No soccer, no life, no college, no family. No friends,~ he added to the list.
"You're the Mastermind," he reminded himself. "You don't give a fuck."
~"It's not that I don't want to leave. It's that I have nowhere to go."~
~"Call it a bad first impression, but you seem the type to let go right when he'd need you most."~
"Mastermind," he muttered again, a quiet insistence.
The scream was loud in his head: betrayal, pain, denial…
He grit his teeth, tearing his gaze away from the door and pointing it steadfastly towards the stairwell. But when he took a step forward he was already turning. The basket dropped from his hands and he didn't slow to pick it up, quick strides taking him back down the hall to Ken's door. He was kicking himself with every step there but he couldn't stop, and he twisted the key in the lock. Ken was crying in the bedroom, reduced to a mindless state where everything hurt, where the utter hopelessness of his situation had kicked in. Schuldich grabbed a kitchen knife off of the counter, not caring that it was dirty, and lowered himself to a crouch by the hallway door.
The knots were too tight to fight with but cutting through the leather wasn't much easier. He put his weight into it, dragging the serrated edge back and forth over it, and at last they snapped free. Ken had been straining against them and his arms jerked up from the ground as they were abruptly released. He grabbed desperately for the ring between his legs, not even slowing to take the blindfold off. Schuldich waited just long enough to make sure he'd made it, just long enough to see Ken collapse in a boneless, exhausted heap on his side, and then did an about-face. He was out the door without slowing and he stopped just long enough to lock it before hurrying over to his basket.
He realized he was still holding the knife and he tossed it off to one side, repacking whatever had fallen out of his basket and taking quick strides towards the stairwell. He dug out his phone as he headed down the stairs and he stepped out onto the first floor as quietly as he could. From the stairwell entrance he could see that Farfarello's door was closed and he made sure to keep his footsteps silent as he went past it for the exit.
He flipped open his phone as soon as he was out onto the street. The crosswalk was red but there was enough room and he didn't slow before crossing. He punched in Crawford's number and the American picked up on the second ring. Schuldich didn't give him time to speak. "Come pick me up, Crawford," he said. "I want out of this place like *yesterday*. I'm heading for the Jusco that's down the street from that big gym. You remember?"
"I'm on my way," was the quiet assurance, and Schuldich hung up on him and walked faster.
He'd have appreciated the walk more if he could just get his thoughts to focus on what he wanted them to. He should be reveling in his freedom, done with living in that cramped little apartment with a sap and through with what Farfarello wanted. Schuldich had done what the Irishman had told him and given the Takatori anthill a kick; it was up to the white-haired demon to clean up the mess such a thing made. Schuldich was done. Finished. He was out and nothing could make him go back.
When he licked his lips, he could taste Ken on them.
~This is not the train of thought you should be looking for,~ Schuldich told himself. ~Today was a damned close call in more ways than one.~ He'd recognized at least half of the guests that had come to pay homage to Takatori Mamoru; over the course of three hours he'd watched as the loyalties in the underground shifted from one Takatori to another in preparation of the upcoming war. The fact that they switched sides to a seventeen year said more for their loyalty and their disappointment in Takatori as a leader than anything else Schuldich could think of and he honestly hadn't been expecting so many to come by. On top of that, he hadn't expected the specific people to stop by. He hadn't even realized that most of the ones he'd met before had anything to do with the Takatori regime.
Crawford would be glad to get the names, as it would help the American figure out how to work his future relationships. As for Schuldich? He was getting out of there. Let Crawford play his games as he liked. Schuldich didn't plan on sticking around long enough to earn Farfarello's assessment as a "valuable investment". Too many of those people wanted to kill him and they'd just sided with Farfarello's people. They were one and the same group now and Schuldich wasn't stupid enough to think anyone in that room- not Farfarello, not Omi, and definitely not Nagi- would stop the cretins if they decided to pay the upstart German a midnight visit.
No, Japan was not the place to be anymore. He wasn't going to stick around to watch the revolution, not when there was a whole world of opportunities awaiting him. There were people everywhere who needed his skills.
He felt fingers ghosting along his, clenching down around his hand in a desperate attempt for comfort.
"Keh!" he declared, speeding up and ducking around a couple that was walking ahead of him. Fuck, what was wrong with him? He'd spent way too long cooped up with Farfarello's people, way too long feeling like he was a bug under a microscope that was just seconds away from being pinned to a bulletin board. It must have addled his brain working under such conditions, so naturally he'd looked towards the safest one of the group, someone weaker than him that still saw him as someone strong enough to use as a support. Everyone else there had not spared Schuldich an ounce of interest past what he could do for them and they'd made it clear that they'd kill him if he made one wrong move. But Ken?
Ken had nothing else to believe in, and even though the younger man had to have known that everything was a lie, he'd still fallen for them. He'd still believed.
~What right did you have to look so betrayed?~ he demanded of Ken, fingers tightening on his basket. ~I'm a con artist who masqueraded as a live-in lover for a week and you knew that I was going to leave one day. You knew I was doing what I did and saying what I said because I was paid to do so. So what right did you have to buy into such a lie? Maybe I was the one saying the words but you're the one to blame for believing me.~
His lip curled in a sneer as he realized he was trying to justify things for himself and he tried to find something else to focus on. There was no reason to dwell on Ken. Ken had Farfarello's group to look after him and do what they wished with him. Schuldich had a lot of work to do and none of it involved a crippled little orphan, regardless of who he really was.
~Egypt,~ he thought. ~Kuwait. Dubai. Somewhere hot and dry.~ He wasn't ready to go back to Europe yet and he wasn't sure he'd ever be ready to go back to the United States. ~I don't know any Arabic. I suppose I could wing it.~
He reached Jusco just a short time before Crawford did and tried to work up amusement at the perfect timing. The amusement fell short and Crawford pulled up to the curb to pick him up. Schuldich chucked the basket in the back seat and slipped into the passenger's, and Crawford pulled away from the curb as soon as Schuldich was buckled.
"Did something happen?" Crawford wanted to know, glancing Schuldich's way as he slid into traffic once more.
"Not really," Schuldich answered, sitting low in his seat. "I was just sick of hanging out around them. Farfarello practically put Takatori Mamoru on display to the underworld today and there was this huge parade of people coming by to pay their respects. Judging by the numbers, I'd say it's going to get really ugly around here. I'd appreciate it if I was out of the country before that happened."
Crawford checked his mirrors and changed lanes. "Need a place to wait until things calm down again?"
"Things aren't going to calm down again," Schuldich sent back. "That seventeen year old punk is going to be controlling a chunk of people that used to be our playthings." He flicked his fingers back and forth between them. "I'm not sticking around, not when Farfarello's group knows who I am. They wouldn't hesitate to sell me out, not when they've suddenly got all of these other people to handle things that I was taking care of for them these past few days."
Crawford looked over at Schuldich as the car reached a red light. Schuldich didn't return the look. "You'll be just fine," Schuldich said. "You've got influence he doesn't have: in particular, the police. He'll absorb you without a problem as long as you're willing to work for him. But me? I'm getting out of here. I saw the way those people looked at me all week, and I'd say they're itching for a chance to see me dead."
Crawford had nothing to say to that until the car was moving again a minute later, and the American sighed. "That might be your only option," he agreed, "especially now that we think we know who Hidaka Ken is."
Schuldich grimaced. "Do I want to hear it?" he asked.
"It depends on how much worse your day can become," Crawford returned.
"At the moment? It doesn't have much further to fall." And Schuldich couldn't find a real reason to justify it being that way. Crawford said nothing else for several minutes more, and then, at last, he sighed again. Hearing it once from Crawford was something else, but twice…? Schuldich sent the older man a wary look, studying Crawford's tired expression. "Crawford?"
"Matsumichi had a son," Crawford said at last.
Schuldich just stared at Crawford, waiting for the punch line, waiting for the American to say anything else. He didn't want that to be all. That couldn't be all. Crawford couldn't really mean what he was hinting at because Schuldich refused to believe it. But the silence stretched on between them and Schuldich couldn't get his throat to work to voice his disbelief and denials.
At last he managed to find his voice again, but only enough to ask, "Is there an evening flight to Cairo?"
The moment Ken thought he could stand again he stumbled down the hall and started the water in the tub. Shaking hands put the plug in place and he didn't wait for it to fill before locking the bathroom door behind him and stepping in. It hurt to kneel and he clenched his fingers on the side of the tub as he forced himself to sit that way anyway. His jaws were locked as he stared at the water rushing from the faucet, trying to focus on the overly hot water rather than think about what had just happened. He didn't want to think about any of it until he knew what he was supposed to feel about it.
How was he supposed to react to that?
The last twenty-four hours had been… horrible. Between seeing Asuka again and bearing witness to that ceremony today, he'd already stocked up on enough unpleasantness to keep him up at night. But Schuldich… was the last straw. Schuldich was the final piece he hadn't needed to fall out of place.
He should have expected it.
Schuldich's job was simply to come, stay for a week, and make Ken feel like he actually meant something to someone. He'd most likely gotten spooked by what had happened today, if he'd been able to follow it, and had been desperate to get out. This was more than what the German had bargained for when he'd accepted the assignment and showed up to be Ken's live-in companion. And yet…
He'd known that Schuldich had been paid to say such things, but still…
Why had he left like that?
Why had he done that?
Hadn't he been around Ken enough to realize that Ken would have let him leave if he'd asked? All he'd had to say was that his contract was up and it was time to go, and Ken would have let him go. He wouldn't have been happy about it, as Schuldich had become overnight the only thing he'd thought he could be sure of, but he would have let him go. So why had he done such a thing?
Ken thought he was going to be sick. The smell of burning wood choked him and when he closed his eyes, he could see Asuka's pale brown ones staring back at him. He hunched forward, burying his face in the water that had filled up to his knees, and screamed into the water. He screamed until he was too tired to scream anymore, coming up for breath when his lungs felt like they were being crushed only to hide his face again. Fingernails dragged long lines down his arms and he wished he could cut the images out of his head.
He remembered a picnic party for his eighth birthday and being so excited because his parents were coming for it. He distinctly remembered that he almost never saw them, as they were always very busy. But this time they'd reserved a whole park just for him and had police patrolling the edges to make sure everyone stayed out. Balloons everywhere, red and blue and yellow and white. And a clown! Ken remembered being terrified of the clown, no matter how big its painted smile was. He'd cried when his mother had tried to make him take a balloon animal from it, and he remembered Asuka laughing at him later for being such a little kid.
He was eight years old, far too big to be picked up, but his father had lifted him just the same and held him at arm's length. "So big!" he'd declared. "What are they feeding you?" Ken hadn't really understood the question but he'd started listing things anyway.
The live band… There'd been a live band, right? A small four piece thing and his parents had danced as the sun set. Asuka had taken him to catch lightning bugs and he dimly remembered other children being there. Their faces were blurry but Ken had a sick feeling in his stomach that he knew who they were. He didn't want to remember that, however.
A different year; the year his father had died. Eleven years old and Ken was still feeling the aches and isolations of never having his parents around for him. He was allowed to spend a few weeks with them out of the year and the occasional weekend was all right for a visit, too, but even as he wished desperately for one of those days, he never liked being around his parents. He didn't like the people his father brought over to his house. He didn't like their smiles and he didn't like how they smelled. He'd fallen out of enough trees and gotten in enough fights with the other boys on his soccer team to know what blood smelled like and those men had always smelled of it.
He couldn't remember most of the things they'd talked about, but he remembered being terrified after eavesdropping several times. Fear of his father and the pain of never feeling like his father really was his father had melted into a hot hatred by the time Ken was eleven and he'd lost his family for good.
He still remembered waking up because he heard something downstairs and going down to investigate. It had been a horrible weekend so far; his mother had fallen ill and she'd argued with his father until Ken was allowed to come home. The pair seemed to always waver between loving Ken and not wanting him around, and it seemed that they only loved Ken as long as he wasn't there with them. But his mother had been ill enough to delude herself into think she wanted to see her only son and he'd been brought home on the weekend when he'd been planning an overnight trip with his soccer team.
He hadn't expected Asuka to be there that night, and apparently, she hadn't expected to see him, either.
He'd been halfway down the stairs before his father came running out into the hall from his office, completely covered in fire. It had been the most horrific thing Ken had ever seen, up until the point that Asuka stepped out of his office with a lighter in her hands and a smirk on her face. There had been laughter from elsewhere in the room, the excited voices of other girls, and as Ken had watched, Asuka had touched the lighter to a puddle of gasoline on the bookshelf and watched as it caught fire.
As flames ripped up the walls, following tracks of gas she must have splashed there earlier, she'd finally spotted the boy standing frozen on the stairs. For one moment he'd seen her expression break, and in the next, she'd gone running up after him.
Ken didn't remember what else happened that night. He remembered running from her, and a blow, and the next thing he knew, he'd woken up in Osaka without a clue who he was or how he'd gotten there.
Ken rather thought he'd been much happier not knowing who he was.
The water was almost too high and Ken forced himself to unlatch his fingernails from his arm to twist the knobs off. The steam had fogged up the mirror above the sink and Ken rather thought it represented his whole life suddenly flooded with uncertainty.
What was he supposed to do? Where was he supposed to go?
Asuka hadn't belonged to his family. She'd belonged to his aunt's, one of three girls the woman had invested in as maids and future bodyguards. Ken had known her growing up because it had been her mother raising him, and he'd seen her when she wasn't off at work. He'd adored her growing up; she'd been his hero of sorts. And then she'd destroyed everything.
Ken grabbed at the side of the tub, forcing himself up enough that when he lost control of his stomach, he threw up onto the tile floor instead of into the water. The image of his father running screaming through the house, completely engulfed in flames, haunted him. How could she do that to him? How could she do that to them? She'd always laughed at Ken when he'd confided in her that he didn't really like the things his father did and had shrugged it off as normal. "If you think he's bad, you should see what my mister does," she'd assured him. "That boy of his is going to grow up far worse than your dad."
Ken could remember the boy she'd been talking about, a blue-eyed fair-haired child who didn't smile much and tended to stay to the outskirts when the rest of the children played together.
Today he'd come and watched strangers pay homage to that fair-haired child, and Ken desperately hoped he wouldn't have to look Omi in the face the rest of the day. He had no clue what was going on anymore. He didn't know who they were or who he was or what was happening. He didn't know what those strangers wanted or expected from any of them. The only thing he knew for sure was that Schuldich had left him and that Ken couldn't seem to keep most of his grief from focusing on that single fact. He told himself he was latching onto it because it was his only certainty but that didn't stop him from feeling so betrayed and lost over the way Schuldich had left him.
Did Schuldich honestly think that was funny? What had he been trying to prove, other that Ken had been an idiot for believing him this week, for trusting in him?
He didn't know, so he sat in the tub feeling miserable until he knew the heat was starting to make him sick. He wrapped himself in a towel and shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, hesitating when he spotted the picture on the floor. He slowly crouched, picking it up to stare at it, and something twisted in his stomach and his chest as he viciously crumpled it into a ball. He shoved it into his trash can, burying it as deep as it would go.
"He's gone," he told himself, forcing himself up from his crouch. "He's gone, and that's how it's supposed to be. It's not your place to call him back; it's not your place to miss him. He's gone and you're going to get over that because there are much bigger problems at hand."
The train of thought didn't help him much but he did manage to get dressed, pulling on sweats and a hoodie even though it wasn't the weather for it. He found his keys off to one side and left his apartment, heading down the hall. There was a knife on the floor of the hallway that he recognized as one of his own but he had no interest in stopping to pick it up. Instead he continued on, barefoot, down the stairwell and then down the hall to Farfarello's room. He knocked just twice, too drained to feel nervous about calling on Farfarello, and the door opened just a short time later.
Nanami said nothing but stepped aside, and Ken moved past her into the room. Farfarello was seated on his couch and Omi and Nagi were perched on the same chair they'd used the following day. Yohji and Asuka were out of sight, which Ken figured was just as well. The next time he saw her, he wanted to be rested enough and restored enough emotionally to scream at her.
In her absence, there was always Farfarello, and Ken stared across the room at him, trying to feel something, anything. But seeing Asuka again had taken most of the wind out of his sails, and Schuldich's harsh game and abrupt exit had sunk his ship. He had nothing left to give, so he wondered if he was finally strong enough to take.
"Who are you?" he wanted to know. "Who are you and what do you want with me?"
Farfarello lifted one shoulder in a shrug and motioned towards the final empty chair. Ken didn't move, content to stand his ground until he had an answer. He wasn't going to sit just because Farfarello told him to. He was past the point of worrying about what the Irishman could do to him. So what if he evicted him? He'd probably be better off without this group and it'd be an excuse to move on to a different city and hide there.
"My name is Jei Tierney," Farfarello said as an explanation, "and I am the only son of Ireland's ruling prime minister."
Ken eyed him for a long moment, trying to figure out if that was really the truth. "A politician," he mused. "I suppose I should have expected it. Everyone says that politicians are monsters."
Farfarello's smile was slow and unpleasant. "I abandoned surface politics long ago for the side that interested me more. My father ruled the part of Ireland that the world was allowed to see and I controlled what went on behind that emerald mask, forging ties with other nations. One of those nations was Japan, and one of my associates happened to be a man name Matsumichi Kenji." He tilted his head to one side, considering Ken. "He was your father. That's where your adapted name comes from."
Ken just continued to stare at him and say nothing, and Farfarello needed no encouragement to finish his explanation. "The Matsumichi family ruled Japan once upon a time; they ruled for over a century before the Takatoris managed to infect the blood. Takatori Shuuichi killed your family to gain the power and prestige and he was in turn killed almost immediately by his older brother, Takatori Reiji. The Takatori family has inherited the power and loyalty that should have stayed in the Matsumichi family, and some of us know it shouldn't stay there. Some of us were willing to come to Japan to fight to get it back."
Nanami moved around Ken and went to sit beside Farfarello, leaning over to rest her cheek to his thighs. Her gaze was calm as she considered Ken and he glanced down at her before looking up at Farfarello again.
"I came to Japan when I heard of your family's murder. His associates and underlings in Japan were in an uproar and there were many who didn't think it was a mistake. Their suspicions were confirmed when Takatori Shuuichi's family fell just a short time later, but they chose not to do anything about it. Being united under a leader they didn't like was still better than having nothing to keep them from getting tangled in a constant war with each other, or so they thought.
"In the beginning, everything hinged on getting here before Shuuichi's son was killed. He was young enough that we knew we could make something of him that would be fit to rule the Matsumichi's line. That was what brought me to Japan. That was before I found out that Murase Asuka, bodyguard to Matsumichi Kikuno, had chosen the mistress's line over the Takatori's. She killed your family because she was on orders to from Shuuichi, but she is also the only reason you are alive today. She sent you to Osaka with her brother to keep you both alive."
"She told you to keep an eye on me?" Ken asked, arching an eyebrow at Nagi. "How wonderful, to be babysat by someone three years younger than me."
Nagi's jaw tightened. "She risked everything by getting you out of there," he said. "She risked everything by saving us. Her companions were bought out by the Takatori family. They're the same two that killed Mamoru's family." Funny how easy Omi's real name came out on Nagi's tongue. "She made sure we all got out of Tokyo without anyone knowing we survived."
"And then you showed up in Japan and took her under your wing as a Matsumichi loyalist?" Ken guessed, turning the arched eyebrow on Farfarello.
"She is loyal," Nagi insisted quietly.
"She set my father on fire," Ken reminded him. "Give me a moment to feel amazed by her fidelity."
"Your father was an asshole and everyone knew it," Omi pointed out, and the simple tone and choice of language was enough to jar Ken briefly out of his blank little ball. "She was sixteen years old, Ken, and raised around the Takatori taint. She was scared of what they could do. Saving you was all she could think of. Warning your father just meant a possible war between the bloodlines wherein too many people would die and she would most likely be discovered and killed. She did the math and everyone has to live with her decision that night."
Ken said nothing for several moments and then looked back at Farfarello. "So we're alive," he said. "Myself and Omi. Now what do you expect to do? You came over here from Ireland years ago; what have you been doing?"
"Getting ready," was the answer. "It is hard to find a foothold against a loyalty as old as the lines Takatori has invested. We didn't have the people for it and his replacements weren't old enough."
"Then what do you plan to do?" Ken demanded.
"The Takatoris are going to fall," Omi said, lifting his shoulders in a small shrug as if this should be obvious. "And when it does, the proper head of the clan will be put in place." Ken glanced towards him and Omi offered him the barest of smiles. "The sole survivor of the Matsumichi line; you're to inherit all of it."
Ken just stared at him. "Now you're not making any sense."
Omi held his hand out, showing Ken the blade he'd used in the club. "We cannot afford for them to know that you're alive yet, Ken. If we lose this battle, then we still need the heir to be alive. We're giving the lines a chance to regroup around a party that has more right to rule than Takatori Reiji does. As they don't know that you exist yet, that role falls to me. I'm the puppet for this group now, the acting heir. They'll swear loyalty to me and therefore will die for me if I tell them to. I know I can give them that order, and I know that you can't."
"We're going to topple the throne and rebuild it," Nagi said, sinking lower in his chair. "And when it settles, the Matsumichis will have back what was taken from them. It's best that way. The blood has earned it; they never led Japan astray."
"So, what, you expect me to become some psycho underworld lord or something?" Ken asked, and he couldn't stop himself from laughing. It sounded funny even to him.
"Why not?" Nagi asked sensibly. "Where else would you go with a brace on your leg and two menial labor jobs?"
"Nagi," Omi chided him, but Nagi continued to stare at Ken in a silent demand for Ken to try and answer that question.
Ken turned sharply away, reaching for the knob, but Nanami spoke up before he could twist it. "Where is Schuldich now? She wants to see him again."
It was all Ken could do to keep from flinching. "He's not here," he said. "His week is up. He left."
"You mean he ran away with his tail between his legs before he gets caught in the crossfire," was Nagi's scornful answer. "I didn't expect anything else."
"Leave him out of it," Ken snapped, turning to fix an angry look on the younger boy. "He has nothing to do with this- this complete mess you've made. So let's say that Omi and I really do have these psycho bloodlines in our veins and Farfarello really is some maniacal overlord from overseas. But don't get Schuldich caught up in this mess just because you don't like foreigners."
Nagi just laughed at him. "I didn't like Schuldich because you believed his lies," he said. "You don't honestly still believe he was a live-in lover, do you?"
"Nagi," was Omi's reprimand, and the dark haired boy subsided.
Ken stared at him for along moment before flicking his gaze towards Farfarello. The Irishman's expression was calm, so Ken turned back to Omi. "What?" he asked. No one answered him immediately, so he repeated the question. "*What*?"
"Schuldich is at the top of the Most Wanted list for all of the underworld," Farfarello said, and Ken looked back towards him. "He's known as the Mastermind, a con artist that has been hacking at the ranks for years. As fate would have it, you crashed into his master's car and Crawford sent Schuldich here to deal with you in retaliation, which meant we could hire his services for our side. Without that we wouldn't be in the right position to attack Takatori at this moment."
Ken had no clue what to say to that.
Out of everything that had been twisting through his mind, all of the horrid images from his past he couldn't forget, all of his confusion and dismay over the events of the day, and that vicious, tangled knot of nameless emotions over Schuldich's exit and the way he'd chosen to leave, nothing hit quite so hard as what Farfarello was saying to him. He thought he felt his legs give out from under him; he felt the world give a violent lurch. It must have been his imagination, however, because he was still standing upright, one hand clenched on the door knob for support.
"Crawford sent Schuldich here out of vengeance for his car," Farfarello said again, "but he stayed because he was doing work for me. Who do you think was responsible for the accident at Takatori's banks? Who do you think forced the previously wealthy Takatoris into bankruptcy? Who spread the rumors and ill will amongst the newspapers to break up Takatori's alliances? Just because he made time to fuck you on the side doesn't mean anything."
Ken wondered why he was so surprised. He told himself he had no right to feel so stunned- so betrayed- by such a thing.
"Fuck you," he managed to get out, and it didn't come out louder than a hoarse whisper. The second time it was louder and flat, twisting funnily in the air. "Fuck you, Farfarello, and fuck your stupid power games."
With that he wrenched the door open and stalked out, slamming it behind him.
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