“What do you mean, we’re not going against Schwarz?” Ken demanded, staring up at Manx in disbelief. “Have you been watching the news? One hundred and sixteen people are dead, Manx!”
“They have to be stopped,” Aya agreed grimly.
“Kritiker isn’t ready just yet,” Manx said, lifting one shoulder in a delicate shrug. Past her, Omi was sitting silently at his desk. He didn’t look surprised by her announcement and ignored the incredulous look Yohji threw him. “We still have work we would like to get done before assigning Weiss to them. From your past skirmishes, you know that they’re a formidable opponent…”
“Scratch that!” Ken sent back, giving a sharp cutting motion with his hand. “I can’t believe that. You want us to just walk away and pretend that didn’t happen?”
She gave him a cool look. “That’s not what I said. I just said that you’re not going to take a mission against them yet.”
“I don’t believe this…” Yohji muttered, lighting a cigarette from his spot in the chair. “They’ve more than earned it, Manx.”
“And what makes you so confident that Weiss would live through a confrontation with them?” Manx demanded coldly. None of them had an answer for her and she propped her hands on her hips, looking around at them. “I did not come here to argue with you. I came here to tell you how things are. Kritiker is looking into the matter at the harbor. Until we give you the say so, you will continue to wait here and go about your business upstairs.” Red nails flicked to indicate the flower shop and she looked around at Weiss’s older three, fixing them each with a hard stare.
Her gaze lingered longest on Ken, and he felt distinctly uncomfortable at what he saw in her eyes. She knew. Ken wasn’t sure how to react to that. His initial response was a spike of betrayal that Omi had told Kritiker, but he struggled to squash that. Of course Omi had told Manx… Ken was putting his entire team in jeopardy with his relationship with Schuldich, and if the organization really was in the middle of some sort of deal with Schwarz, then Kritiker needed to know everything that was going on with them. That included Ken and Schuldich's relationship.
In the end he managed to lift his chin slightly in defiance. “They’re still the enemy,” he said pointedly, willing her to believe him that his loyalties were to Weiss first and foremost. Something darkened on Yohji’s expression as a few things clicked into place in his mind, but Aya was oblivious to the message beneath Ken’s words. “We didn’t join Weiss thinking that we would always triumph,” he continued, glancing around at his teammates. “If we wanted to live forever we’d have picked a safer line of work. We came here to serve justice and we’ve known since day one that that meant putting our lives on the line for what we believe in.”
“When you came here, you didn’t believe in anyone or anything,” Manx reminded him.
“People change,” Ken bit out.
“Mm,” she said noncommittally. “Do they?”
“I have something worth living for,” Ken told her. “I have something worth dying for.” She said nothing, but the doubt was still there in her eyes, and for a moment, he hated her for it. The strength of the emotion startled him and he pushed himself to his feet, waving his hand at her. “If you didn’t come to give us a mission, then I guess we don’t need to stick around anymore. Come back when Kritiker’s managed to get its shit in order.”
“Ken,” Omi said, a quiet reprimand, but Ken ignored him and turned away.
“I want to speak to you, Ken,” Manx said, and Ken came to a stop on the third step. “Everyone else can go.”
Silence followed that. Aya didn’t suspect anything and started for the stairs immediately, but when Ken looked back over his shoulder, Yohji and Omi were exchanging looks. At last they stood as well, and Ken moved out of the way so they could get by. Yohji flicked him an unreadable look but Omi offered him the barest of smiles as he went by. That smile was enough to dissolve most of Ken’s anger. No matter what Kritiker said, Omi still believed in him. That was all he needed to know.
The door shut behind them and Ken turned to face Manx. She pointed to his chair and he returned to it, falling heavily into the cushions. She propped herself against the wall, arms folded over her chest, and waited for him to say something. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said at last, pointing at her. “Don’t look at me as if you don’t know me. I’ve been killing for Kritiker for almost three years now. I’ve given you my sanity and my soul; I have nothing left to give you but my life on the battlefield.”
“You’re sleeping with Schuldich,” she pointed out. “That’s enough reason to doubt your sanity, regardless of what Omi says. Kritiker does not approve.”
“I’m not a traitor!” he said hotly, and her lips thinned to a hard line.
“Few of us think you are,” she said, and that shut him up for a moment. “I’ve been informed that Omi told you Schuldich has something we want, that there’s a deal going between Weiss and Schwarz at the moment.”
“He didn’t tell me everything and Schuldich won’t tell me anything,” Ken said, and then he realized why Kritiker was digging in its heels to assign a mission. “You don’t want us to fight them before you’ve got what you want from them,” he realized. “You can’t afford for one of us to get lucky just yet.” He remembered the way Schuldich had gone quiet at the announcement that Weiss was going to get assigned to Schwarz; why hadn’t he just laughed it off?
Manx started towards him, leaning over to prop her hands on the arms of the chair to either side of him. There was something buried in her gaze, something almost desperate and fractured. It startled him into silence and he stared at her, wondering at the way the muted emotions didn’t make it into her voice. “We’re gambling for something we need very badly,” she said, “but there’s no promise that it’s going to work out. People are going to get hurt this time. It’s not like before, when Schwarz found it amusing to toss Weiss around a bit and then walk away. We’re playing for keeps this time. Do you understand what that means?”
Ken stared up at her for several moments before venturing to say, “It means Weiss isn’t going to walk away from this.” She didn’t confirm or deny it, but there was a sick twisting in Ken’s stomach that said he was right. “There’s no way Weiss can triumph over Schwarz in a battle, not when we’re armed with a few bladed weapons and wire and they’ve got gifts. If they mean business, we’re not going to make it.”
Manx straightened and headed away, plucking up her purse from where she’d set it down on top of the television. Ken stood up to block her way to the stairs, arms out at either side. “I want to know why,” he insisted. She stared straight at him, unflinching, and offered no response. “I meant what I said earlier. This is what we chose to do; this is the way we’ll end it. We can’t back down from this no matter what, not when we’ve seen firsthand the things Schwarz can do. We have to try to stop them at least, or we won't be able to live with ourselves. But I want to know why. I want to know what they have that you need so badly.”
When he received no response, he opened his mouth to press another argument, but Manx beat him to speaking when she finally offered up a quiet explanation. “Estet,” she answered.
Ken stared at her. “Estet’s dead. We killed them off months ago.”
“Not all of them,” she corrected him. “Just a large faction. There are more of them. Schwarz can give us Estet and Rosenkreuz in one swoop.”
Ken only dimly recognized the word “Rosenkreuz”. He’d heard it from Schuldich and deduced from context that it was where Schwarz had received their assassin training, much like Kritiker had trained Weiss. He frowned at Manx, trying to comprehend the thought that Schwarz would so completely turn against their own side. He wasn't sure what existed that could do such a thing to the black team, but he supposed it didn't matter. He'd heard enough about Estet and seen enough firsthand to know that they were bad news. If Schwarz was willing to sell them out, then of course Kritiker had to do whatever the other team wanted.
"What does Schwarz get out of the deal?" he wanted to know.
"Schuldich said that he would pick a prize of his own later, separate from Schwarz, since he was the one who came to us."
The words were familiar; Ken remembered Omi saying the same thing. He shook his head. "But that can't be it," he argued. "Why would Schuldich trade out an organization like that in return for nothing more than a steady lay?"
Silence followed that for several minutes. Green eyes searched his gaze but Ken wasn't sure what she was looking for until she spoke again. Her words made his blood run cold, though he told himself not to be surprised. "For Schwarz… He insisted that Kritiker assign Weiss to this case. You four are to be there when everything happens. That is what Schwarz demands."
"What Schwarz demands…" Ken echoed, and the pieces began to fall into place in a dizzying rush. "You've sold Weiss out to Schwarz in exchange for this." She said nothing to confirm or deny it and Ken took a few steps back from her, raking a hand through his thick hair. He waited for the feelings of betrayal and outrage; it had been one thing to know that Weiss was going to fight Schwarz to the death on Kritiker's behalf and another entirely to realize Kritiker had actually signed and stamped the papers to make sure such a thing was possible. But nothing came; he couldn't scrounge up more than a hollow feeling in his stomach. "Well…" he said, searching for words. He couldn't find any and just barely managed a shrug. Manx reached up, pressing her hand to his face, and then moved past him for the stairs.
He listened to her high heels tap against he metal but didn't turn to watch her go. It was several minutes more before he could leave the basement. The other three were in the flower shop and Yohji's eyes were accusing as Ken joined them. He looked past Yohji to Omi and he saw in the younger man's eyes that he already knew. For some reason, he was surprised.
He hadn't expected to care. After years of this work, he hadn't thought he would give a damn when his number finally came up.
"I'm going on break," he said, and none of them thought to question it. He turned and left, snagging his motorcycle keys from a hook on the wall before leaving. He yanked his helmet on, strapping it under his chin, and was fixing his goggles when Omi joined him. The youth said nothing, choosing instead to stand quietly off to the side in case Ken needed him. Ken didn't intend to look at him; he told himself not to. It wasn't until he was snapping the Velcro on his gloves that he finally lost the battle and looked up into Omi's patient blue stare.
"She told you?" Omi asked. "I told her she might not want to."
"I have the right to know," Ken pointed out gruffly. "I mean, if we thought about it long enough, we'd realize our time was coming. I just didn't realize we had price tags sewn onto our uniforms."
Omi's smile was slight and he moved closer, neatly tugging at Ken's helmet to straighten it. "Weiss knows of only a little of the things Estet and Rosenkreuz are into. I don't know much more than that because it is too hard for Kritiker to get a good view of things. But they are a global organization, Ken. We can count their influences in at least thirteen countries. Kritiker can't hope to take them out in one giant swoop; they are far too large for that. Instead we do the same thing Weiss does, picking it apart piece by piece."
"And this piece?" Ken asked, searching his friend's gaze.
"Rosenkreuz and Estet have been two separate organizations for their entire history, though they are greatly interwoven in everything they do. Now, after so many years, they are finally merging and establishing new leaders. Schwarz is going to give us those leaders. Out of everything they could have given us, they are giving us the leaders of the new Estet."
Ken said nothing to that for a long moment. At last he gave another shrug, because it was really the only way he knew how to answer. "It'll be worth it," he managed to say, though he wasn't entirely sure that was the truth. It was, really, and he knew it, but that didn't mean he was looking forward to the confrontation with Schwarz.
Omi took two steps forward, wrapping his arms around Ken in a tight hug. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and the sincere pain in his voice made Ken's heart clench. He opened his mouth, meaning to offer some sort of reassurance, but his throat was too tight all of a sudden to get any sounds out. Omi released him just a moment later and took a step back and Ken found he couldn't look at him. "Take your time on break," Omi said. "The shop isn't busy today." With that he turned and headed back inside, and Ken twisted his key in the ignition with a brutal jerk.
He didn't return to the Koneko until well after midnight.
It was three more days before Ken crossed paths with Schwarz once more. He was hanging out in the park watching his former students enjoy a soccer practice when a shadow moved up alongside his and Schuldich appeared at his elbow. Ken didn't acknowledge him immediately, as the German just brought to mind unpleasant thoughts he'd been trying to forget. Instead he tried to focus on the kids. He'd had to give up his coaching position a few months ago when Weiss's work picked up speed and it had been a while since he'd been out to see them. Their new coach was jogging up and down the makeshift field on the other side of the kids from Ken, calling out to them, and Ken could find no faults in his instructions.
"I hear Weiss is going after Kurosaki tonight," Schuldich said, growing bored of being ignored.
"Mm," was Ken's noncommittal response. There was a too-familiar click and he glanced towards Schuldich's hands. A cigarette was perched between the older man's lips and he was considering the dancing flame on his lighter. Ken sent him a sideways look that Schuldich didn't bother to return. "Those things are gross, you know."
"It's an acquired taste."
"You shouldn't have acquired it. It's a bad habit to pick up."
"What are you, the surgeon general?" Schuldich cocked an eyebrow at him but there was no heat in his words. He lit the end of his stick, drawing in a breath to make it glow. "By the way, I'd like to congratulate you on your highly evolved moping skills. I usually don't find people that good at it above the age of fourteen."
Ken scowled at him. "I'm not moping," he sent back, annoyed by the jibe. "I'm just…" He fell silent, considering that, and turned his attention back on the swarming kids. "I'm feeling very mortal," he said at last, though e felt a little foolish for saying such a thing to someone like Schuldich.
The telepath offered him a derisive snort in response. "You sound like you need a night of getting extremely shit-faced to take care of such petty concerns. Barring that…" He gave Ken a lazy smile and the athlete found it almost disturbing how easily that smile made him forget Weiss's situation. He forgot about the practice going on just a short distance away and the mission Weiss had tonight, completely intent on Schuldich's mouth. The telepath's smile curved wider into a smirk and Schuldich towards him, bonking their foreheads. "Schwarz will be passing through tonight. I'll see you on the third floor, room 314."
The telepath leaned in closer before moving back; their lips brushed in the barest of kisses and Ken wanted to step on the German's foot for the tease. He managed another scowl but it was only half-hearted at best and then the telepath was moving away. Ken watched until he was out of sight and then dug his cell phone out of his pocket to check the time. A quick mental calculation showed there were just five hours until they crossed paths again, and the thought made him smile.
He could handle five hours, and then he'd let Schuldich make him forget that he was going to die in a few weeks. Fuck him tonight and be killed by him later. Funny that it didn't sound so bad anymore. He'd worry about everything later.
Schuldich was waiting for him when Ken arrived. Ken had made sure to come on his bike so he wouldn't have to return with the others after the mission was over. He did his part and reported as if he was leaving and then simply stayed behind while his teammates ducked out of there. When he was sure they were gone he turned off his headsets and headed up the stairs to the third floor, pulling his gloves free before letting himself into the room Schuldich had chosen. The sight had him giving a low whistle of appreciation; the place was large enough to fit maybe three of his apartments into, and the wall behind the desk was covered with large windows. He shut the door behind him and tossed his gloves to one side before heading towards the desk were Schuldich was waiting.
The telepath was slouched in the large chair behind the desk, shoes propped up on the wooden surface and a cigarette burning between his lips. He watched Ken approach through half-lidded blue eyes and Ken passed him to consider the view for a few moments.
"I'm obviously working for the wrong people," Ken said. "I have a flower shop and a cramped apartment. This guy probably makes eight times the salary I do."
"Everyone makes eight times the salary you do," Schuldich pointed out, and Ken turned to face him. The German plucked his cigarette free and waggled it at him. "If you actually had to pay rent on those apartments Kritiker leased to you, you'd only have enough money left over to eat yakisoba three times a day."
Ken made a face at him. "It's not that bad," he protested, inviting himself to sit on Schuldich's lap. The chair was wide enough that he could bend his knees and tuck his legs to either side of the telepath's and he grinned down at him from his perch, stealing the cigarette away and grinding it into the ash tray. Schuldich didn't bother to argue but caught Ken by the goggles around his neck and pulled him down for a hard kiss.
"Schwarz finished here?" Ken asked.
"Not quite, but they don't need me yet," was the easy response.
"Good." He tangled their fingers together and settled for rememorizing Schuldich's taste. He tasted like smoke and he decided it wasn't so bad; maybe it was appropriate that the man tasted like death. He needed to get used to the taste, after all. Schuldich's body was hard and hot against him and he rocked against him, grinding down hard against the other's front. It earned him a thick groan and he grinned, pleased with the results. "Up," he said.
"Hmm?" was the half-coherent response.
Ken nipped at the corner of his mouth. "Up."
Schuldich started to push himself up, thinking Ken wanted him off the chair, and Ken pushed himself up to allow the telepath a little room. As soon as Schuldich's ass was off the chair he moved his legs, tucking them under Schuldich so his calves kept Schuldich's thighs off the cushion. He pushed Schuldich's hands back, pressing them against the edge of the desk before pushing against it. The German gave a startled little jolt as the chair moved and Ken rocked forward, hoping he wouldn't push too hard.
"Shit—" Schuldich yipped as the chair rocked backwards, and Ken laughed at him as he buried his fingers in long orange hair. The chair was only standing on its hind legs now, with Schuldich's hands on the desk keeping them from toppling. The telepath looked up at him at the sound and Ken offered him a smile.
"Don't let us fall," he teased the other man.
"Don't let us fall, he says," Schuldich sent back. "You can sound amused by it because falling just means I get flattened between you and the floor."
Ken just shrugged and set about undoing the buttons on Schuldich's shirt. There were six in all and he pushed the shirt to hang around Schuldich's biceps, leaning forward to press a kiss to the corner of Schuldich's lips. The second kiss met his mouth full on, and lips, fingers, and hips moved as one. Schuldich arched up into his touch as Ken ground down on him and the chair gave a small lurch as Schuldich's grip on the desk slackened briefly. Ken just laughed in response to the telepath's grimace and waited for the other to strengthen his hold before continuing.
It could have been over quickly but neither was interested in rushing. Ken amused himself making the telepath squirm because there was nothing quite like it and despite Schuldich's occasional snarled protests, Schuldich tended to make it inescapably clear when he didn't want something and Ken saw none of the warning signs in him. He tickled and teased, bit and pinched, and for a while nothing existed but the two of them. They ended up with the chair propped up against the desk at one point; Ken had to grab hold of the edge to drag the rolling chair close enough. It was awkward to move and hard to concentrate; both were breathing heavily and if Ken didn't find it so much fun to be touching Schuldich he would have had to do something about the almost excruciating tightness in his pants. As for Schuldich, he really wasn't interested in toppling to the floor so it was all he could do to keep a grip on the desk and his knuckles had gone white a long time ago.
As soon as the top edge of the chair was propped against the desk Ken pulled Schuldich up along the back of it, forcing him higher on the cushions before relaxing against him. Schuldich gave a breathless swear, scrabbling for a better hold. "You're heavy," he got out. "Get off of me."
"I've got it," Ken assured him, reaching past him to take hold of the desk. "Let go."
The moment Schuldich obeyed Ken started to move, and the telepath settled for burying his hands in the back pockets of Ken's pants. They were both so hard it hurt, but Schuldich didn't want to push him away just to undo his pants, so it was all he could do to just help pull Ken down harder against him. The telepath's breathing was ragged at his ear and Ken loved watching his face as they moved together with the chair rocking beneath them in time. It was the first time Schuldich had let him lead and Ken felt it like a drug in his veins, a heady, euphoric hum as he watched the older man react so easily and so well to his touch. He was sorely disappointed when Schuldich buried his face against Ken's throat as release finally shuddered between them, as he'd wanted to see the telepath's expression.
They stayed like that for a long minute afterwards, too tired and content to move. At last Ken eased the chair back down to four legs and he wound his arms around his lover's neck to offer him a few lazy kisses. Schuldich left his hands in Ken's pockets, idly flexing his fingers now and then as they explored each other's mouths, and Ken had a feeling the smile on his face was dopey when he finally leaned back.
"So," he started to say, but Schuldich's face went blank in a way Ken had never seen before and Ken forgot the rest of what he was going to say. Across the room the doorknob turned and the door swung open, and a tall foreigner stood in the doorway with his mouth open to call out to his teammate. Ken had a perfect view over Schuldich's head from his vantage point, and the other, likewise, had a perfect view of him.
"Crawford," Ken said, a little too aware of the way Schuldich had gone completely tense. "It's been a while."
Crawford just looked at him for a long minute before he closed his mouth, and he took a few steps into in the room and stopped. Schuldich reached out, awkwardly catching hold of the edge of the desk enough to turn the chair so he could see Crawford. It put them both in Crawford's line of view and he looked from one to the other, his expression inscrutable. Nagi and Farfarello appeared in the doorway just a few seconds later and Nagi flinched back from the scene they'd just stumbled across. Farfarello's expression closed off and he ignored the quick look Nagi sent him.
'Weiss," Crawford said.
"What's new?" Ken asked, flashing him a peace sign and suddenly a little too aware that his bugnuks were on the other side of the room. He wondered how he could sound so flippant when he was surrounded by all four of them. It did not bode well at all for his health; he could sound relaxed but he couldn't make himself look the part, not with Schuldich tense beneath him. "What's Schwarz doing here?"
"Schuldich?" Crawford asked, a quiet press for an explanation.
"You're getting the rest of Weiss," Schuldich said. "This one's mine to do with as I like. I've always had first claim on Weiss and you know that, Crawford."
Get off of me.
Ken didn't hesitate but slid free of the telepath and Schuldich turned the chair the rest of the way to face his older teammate. The rest of the argument was taken to mental grounds but Ken knew it couldn't be pleasant by the way Schuldich's hands were clenched in his lap. Farfarello and Nagi were looking from one to the other and Ken didn't know if that meant that they could hear what was going on or if they were just looking for one to snap. Ken had a sinking feeling in his stomach about this entire confrontation; Farfarello and Nagi had kept alluding to the fact that Crawford finding out would mean hell for the both of them.
Crawford's expression was carved from stone, but Schuldich's was darkening by the minute. Blue eyes were flashing in a muted fury as he fought with his leader, and he slammed his hands down on the table to emphasize a mental point. The loud slap made Ken jump, but not as much as his heart lurched when he realized Crawford had drawn out a gun and had it pointed in their direction.
It wasn't aimed at Ken. It was aimed at Schuldich.
He saw blue eyes widen slightly in recognition, saw a mouth start to open, but Ken still really didn't believe that Crawford was actually aiming at his own god-damned teammate until the trigger was pulled and gunshot rang out deafeningly loud. Blood splashed out as the bullet thudded home in a shoulder and Schuldich hunched over with a hand over it, swearing a breathless string of profanities. Blood leaked between his fingers and ran down his hand and his younger teammates looked a little shell-shocked where they were standing in the doorway.
"Get your things in order, Schuldich. You're outliving your usefulness," Crawford warned him, and he turned away and waved the gun at Farfarello. "Get him out of here and someone get rid of Weiss. We're finished."
They moved aside to let him go and Schuldich grabbed at a knife hidden in his boot. "Usefulness," he snarled. Ken moved without thinking, grabbing at him to try and keep him still. Schuldich didn't seem to notice him, snarling threats at the absent precognitive. "I'll show you usefulness, you god-damned cock biting fucktard!!"
"Stop moving!" Ken said, trying to pry his hand free to get a look at the wound. "Holy hell, I can't believe he just shot you!"
He wasn't really sure how to describe what happened next. One moment he was trying to get a glimpse of Schuldich's wound to figure out the best way to clean it, and in the next, something slammed into his front. It was larger than he was, hitting him from head to toe in one powerful blow, and he went flying and crashed into the far wall. The first impact knocked the breath from his lungs and the second made him dizzy, and he couldn't keep his balance and ended up sliding down the wall to land on his ass on the floor.
"This is not your concern, Weiss," Nagi said, starting across the room towards Schuldich. "Get out of here before Farfarello skins you alive."
Schuldich? The telepath didn't answer him, and Ken pressed again. Schuldich, are you all right?
I have a bullet in my shoulder. I'm fucking fantastic and fuck you very much for asking.
"Get out of here, Weiss," Nagi said again, and Ken heard the threat in those words a little too clearly. He struggled to his feet, blinking back against the sparkles that ate away at his eyesight, and stumbled across the room to his bugnuks.
I guess… I'll leave you to your teammates, he said. He wasn't sure what else to say. Crawford had just shot his own teammate. That was insane. Schwarz was turning on Estet and itself; the world was going to hell in a hand basket and Weiss was caught up in the middle of it. Schuldich didn't answer his awkward farewell and Ken ducked past Farfarello out into the hall, being careful not to touch him. He took the hall at a run because he didn't have the stomach to linger and he found his bike where it was hidden up the road.
Instead of going straight back, he ended up driving around the city for two hours trying to make sense of it in his mind. When that failed, he found himself at Omi's door, and the youth opened the door on the second try. He looked like he'd been asleep but it didn't occur to Ken to apologize. He just grimaced at the memory of blood and gunpowder.
"I need to talk to you."
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