Ken found it very hard to concentrate on much of anything for the next several days. All he could think about was Schuldich and Schwarz. Omi understood his distraction even if the other two didn't, and he left the offer open for Ken to come back and talk again anytime he needed it. Ken accepted it gratefully but never took him up on it, knowing there wasn't anything else to say. He'd said everything he needed to when he'd gotten home from watching Crawford put a bullet in Schuldich's shoulder. He couldn't say anything else without letting on just how much it had bothered him to see Schuldich get shot, because even he couldn't understand why it cut so deep. He couldn't understand why the memory of it made him want to strangle that asshole American, and he doubted Omi would appreciate such confessions.
The resolution not to talk to Omi was killed the day Manx showed up with a mission folder, and Ken knew as soon as she stepped through their door who it was for. She looked to him before she looked at any of the others and Ken felt his stomach twist itself into a vicious little knot against his spine.
"Weiss, I'd like to see you downstairs," she said, and she started for the back door.
Funny how Ken had known it was coming and he still wasn't ready for it. He'd told himself he was ready; he'd told himself he could do it. But those words of hers made him want to throw up and it was all he could do not to grab at the counter for support. After all, this wasn't just about him and Schuldich. This was about his entire team. Schwarz and Weiss were going to fight it out to the finish and people were going to die.
"Ken?" Omi asked.
"Coming," he answered, and it sounded sick even to him. He forced himself upright and followed after the other three as best he could, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. He let them lead the way down the stairs and they arranged themselves around the room. Ken took the chair and tucked his legs up onto it, wrapping his arms around his legs to hug his knees to his chest. He felt very cold as he studied Manx where she was standing in front of them and she didn't bother to look his way.
"Weiss," she greeted solemnly. "The time has come. For years we have assigned you to clients around Tokyo and done our best to avoid this confrontation, but we can put it off no longer. Your targets on this next mission are Schwarz." Silence followed those words; Ken remembered how adamantly they'd all been arguing for Schwarz's demise just a short time ago, but perhaps none of them were honestly expecting that time to come. Manx gave them just a few moments to react to her words before continuing. "They're going to be guarding Kishimoto, one of the head crime lords of the ring we've been going after, and they've made it clear that they're going to defend him against everything. Your goal will be to get through Schwarz and reach Kishimoto."
"Why don't you ask for something simple?" Yohji mused, playing with his lighter. "What happens if we can't get through Schwarz?"
"You keep trying," was her response. "Take out as many of Schwarz as you can."
"And if we fail Kritiker will find a different team to try," Omi said from his spot on the couch. Aya and Yohji exchanged glances but Ken didn't look at any of them.
"Well," Yohji said at last. "It's about damned time someone did something about that group. They deserve to get kicked a few notches down on the ladder." Aya nodded in agreement and Omi smiled, and Ken wondered at how easily they sidestepped the possibility of them getting annihilated on this mission. Manx wasn't smiling as she crossed the room and handed Omi the file. Yohji leaned closer to see. "Hey, schedule this one around my dates, okay? I promised this girl I'd take her out on Wednesday."
"I'll make a note of that," was Omi's dry response.
"Too kind, Omi, too kind. I'll drink a beer or two in your honor." Omi took a half-hearted swipe in his direction that Yohji dodged and the older man pushed himself to his feet. "Anything else?" he asked Manx, and she just shook her head. He took the opportunity to wrap an arm around her shoulders. "Well," he declared. "It is horrible of me to admit feeling mortal, but I shall play it to my advantage. You wouldn't deny a doomed man a date after so many years of trying, would you?"
"The world would end if Manx finally gave into you," Ken muttered from his spot, and Yohji flipped him a rude gesture.
"Nice try, Yohji," was Manx's response, and she neatly pulled his arm free. Ken figured she didn't have much of a choice in turning him down. If she agreed, she was underlining the fact that this mission was going to destroy them. She could just hope that he was joking so that she wasn't squishing an honest last request. Ken idly thought that Yohji should try again later if he really meant it, and ask her when none of Weiss was around to be crushed by her obvious lack of faith in their abilities against Schwarz. "How does it look, Omi?"
Omi considered the papers for few minutes more. "It will take a couple of days," he said, "but it should be fairly easy to figure something out."
"The trick will be figuring out something Crawford doesn't see coming," Aya pointed out, and Omi nodded.
"Keep me updated, then," Manx said, and she started for the stairs. Ken watched her go, listening to her heels click against the metal grating. She vanished out the door and he lowered his gaze to his teammates, noticing the way the easy humor faded from the room in her wake.
"Well…" Yohji said.
"No use thinking about it until I have something figured out," Omi pointed out sensibly. "It'll take a few days. Focus on other things."
"Right." Yohji stuffed his hands into his pockets. "There's a bottle of rum upstairs with my name on it. I'll see you guys later."
Ken thought about pointing out that the shop was still open before deciding it didn't matter. He couldn't see Omi really keeping them working after Manx had just dumped this on them and wondered if it was irresponsible of her for showing up in the middle of the workday. Then again, her coming in the evening just meant they'd be up all night. Either way, Omi just nodded and Yohji left. Aya was the next to follow and Ken had a feeling he wasn't going to stick around the shop. It left Omi and Ken behind and Omi looked towards his older teammate.
"Should be fun," Ken managed to get out. "Have fun working strategies."
"It's sooner than we expected," Omi admitted. "Sooner than we were supposed to get. I think Schuldich feels forced to move after what happened on the last mission."
"You mean Estet's going to realize Schwarz is strung too tight and shredding at the seams and they're going to get suspicious," Ken mused, thinking that over. The memory of blood and the crack of a gunshot made him sick. "It's not right," he muttered at last. "It's not…"
"They've more than earned it," Omi pointed out quietly.
A large part of Ken wanted to point out that Schuldich hadn't earned it. He'd protected people that didn't need protection, yes, but he hadn't killed anybody in years. So how had he earned this? "He grimaced when I rubbed the harbor's victory in his face," Ken said quietly, burying his face between his knees. "He wasn't at all pleased with it."
Omi said nothing, and Ken didn't bother to look up at him. "I'll still go after him," he said. "I told you I would. I'm Weiss, he's Schwarz. Whatever. We've known from the start what that meant. I can still face him on the field."
"If you'd rather I assigned one of the others-"
"No," Ken bit out, finally looking up to meet Omi's gaze. "No. I can handle it just fine. It just- it wouldn't be right, if it were them."
Omi didn't seem convinced, but he didn't argue, and Ken pushed himself up from his chair. "I'll be upstairs, then," he said, and Omi didn't call him back. He took the stairs up to the shop and found both Yohji's and Aya's cars gone when he stepped out back. He considered following their example and leaving but there wasn't really anyplace to go. More and more recently he'd left only with the hope that he'd bump into Schuldich but he wasn't sure what he would say to the German today. So instead he took the stairs up to his room and locked himself in, sprawling out on his bed to watch television. The hours swirled together and he ended up falling asleep there, and he didn't remember his dreams.
The morning of the mission was gray and rainy, and Ken thought it depressingly cliché and appropriate. The shop was closed for the day because none of them were up for dealing with a gaggle of school girls on such an important day. They ate lunch together that day- lunch because none of them made it downstairs anywhere near breakfast time. Omi called them in a delivery lunch and they ate in the basement, and Yohji did his best to distract them all from what was coming by light topics. Ken felt bad for him and his valiant attempt to cheer them up and forced his own opinion regarding the night deep to try and help out.
His heart wasn't in it, though, and he thought it a rather lame effort on his part, but Omi was quick to chip in and better at keeping up the farce than either of them. Aya was Aya and didn't add much, but he didn't sulk in silence either, and Ken privately thought they all walked away from lunch feeling a little bit better. Ken's good mood lasted until he went back upstairs to his room and found Manx waiting on him.
"How many times do I have to insist that I can still draw my bugnuks on him?" Ken demanded tiredly.
"This isn't about Schuldich," Manx answered, beckoning for him to shut the door behind himself. "This is about Omi."
"Omi?" Ken echoed blankly.
"Omi is Kritiker's heir," she explained. "I'm sure you can understand that the head of divisions is a little worried about letting him go on this mission. He's afraid we'll lose Kritiker's future when we could step in and protect him."
Ken wondered if he was supposed to feel indignant or resentful that Omi's life easily out-valued the rest of Weiss's, but he felt nothing at all. "Of course," he murmured, deciding not to mention that by cutting out a member of Weiss, they were effectively castrating the team when they needed everyone they could get. He didn't mention it because four or three meant nothing against Schwarz's powers and they both knew it.
"We have tried to talk him into sitting it out and he has continuously refused our orders. We would like you to try."
"Somehow, I can't see that working."
"The alternative is to drug something he drinks," she answered easily, holding a vial out towards him. "Omi means more than any of us do, Ken. He is a symbol of the future and of justice. We cannot allow him to go on this mission and throw his life in danger."
"Because Weiss is going to lose."
"There's the chance of it, yes."
"Oh, why mince words with me, Manx? You've never seen Schwarz firsthand like we have but you've read the damn reports. You know what they're capable of and you know that it would take a goddamn miracle for any of us to walk away. We're screwed without Omi's help but he's screwed if he comes, and there's no real way to get around that."
"I want you to make sure he stays here. Do you want him to die?"
"I don't want any of them to die, but Kritiker made that decision, now didn't it?"
"That's uncalled for."
"I don't care. It's justified." Ken snatched the vial from her fingers. "If you don't mind, I'm going to take a nap to rest up for the day. My door's over there."
She said nothing about the rude dismissal because she knew she'd more than earned it, and instead crossed the room to the door and let herself out. Ken followed her there and threw the lock into place as soon as the door was closed, leaning against the cool wood as his thoughts spiraled down unwelcome paths.
It's too soon, he thought desperately. We knew our time was running out but it's still too soon. I'm not willing to lose everything. I'm not willing to give all of this up.
He wasn't willing to step out that door and face down Schwarz just so Kritiker could pat themselves on the back and write it off as a fair trade. He didn't want his teammates to die at Schwarz's hands and he didn't want to turn his bugnuks on Schuldich. He'd seen too much of Schuldich. While he'd told himself this entire time that he could still take Schuldich on, that didn't mean he wanted to. Ken had never been much a fan of death when it pertained to his own and he didn't want to clash with Schwarz.
I hoped it wouldn't come to this, he thought. So stupid of me, but I hoped it nonetheless.
He retreated from the door to his bed when he thought he could move without losing his lunch and sank down to the mattress to stare at the vial in his hands. What Manx said made sense. Omi was set to inherit all of Kritiker; hell, losing Weiss would probably be the last step needed to bump him up to the corporation's president. Ken couldn't save Yohji and Aya from this, but he could at least try to save Omi. They'd understand if he explained. On some level they might resent it, deep down where they themselves didn't want to die, but the majority of them would understand like Ken did just how important Omi was and just how important it was that someone take a stand against Schwarz.
Schuldich, I'm going to have to kill you tonight. You understand that, right? Omi said you bumped the mission up faster than Kritiker was expecting. A little reckless, aren't you? Won't you rethink it at all?
Oh, woe is me, woe is me, came the bored response, and Ken's head jerked up from where he was still staring down at the drug. Life sucks and then you die, but I thought you'd figured that out by now. And who says you're going to kill me? I'd piss on my own grave if Weiss ever got the upper hand in a fight.
"Fuck you," Ken whispered, too numb to send the words mentally.
Are you going to let me in or not?
Fuck you, Ken tried again. Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
I think someone's a little scared of dying, despite everything he tried to tell himself. Schuldich sounded amused and there was a tapping at the door, fingernails against the wood. It wasn't a knock, more a demand to be let in, and Ken stared at the door as he tried to figure out whether or not to answer it. I can bring you flowers to your funeral if you like. I suppose Kritiker will take care of the crematory services?
And probably scatter our ashes to the winds, Ken sent back. He set the vial aside and stood, starting for the door. It's probably safer than burying us somewhere and putting our names on real headstones.
Sucks to be you, then.
And if Schwarz dies? Ken asked, leaning against the door with his hand on the knob. He could imagine Schuldich resting against the other side with just this thin plank of wood between them, and he wanted to ask Schuldich why he'd come when they had just a few hours left before they faced each other down for the last time. Will you get a proper funeral?
Sucks to be me, was the breezy response. We don't get anything better than what Weiss is offered because neither of our groups is supposed to exist. I'd be surprised if anyone showed up to the furnace to collect our ashes, even.
I'd keep them, Ken spoke up, though he wasn't sure why. There was silence from the telepath and Ken had been speaking to the German often enough in these past few months to decide that he'd really surprised the other. No one should just be tossed aside and forgotten like that. I'd keep them, and fuck whatever Weiss thought.
There was another pause as the telepath struggled to come up with something to say. You're such a sentimental moron, the man offered up at last, and Ken smiled at the edge to the German's words. How did you ever make it into Weiss?
What's the matter, pissed off that I finally made it okay for you to die? Ken taunted him. Pissed off that I offer you more than the organization that rules your life? Or pissed off that you'll be remembered?
Are you going to let me in or not? Schuldich demanded, ignoring the questions.
Ken decided not to press it any further and threw the lock back. Schuldich opened it and stepped inside and Ken caught him on his way through the door, arms around his neck and crushing his mouth to the German's. Schuldich kicked the door shut, burying his hands in Ken's pockets, and Ken could feel him flinch as the movement jarred his injured arm. Ken broke the kiss enough to look at the bandages down the other's bicep and he loosened one arm to press his fingertips to it.
"This is the official warning I promised you I'd give," Schuldich said, batting his fingers away. He caught Ken's chin and pulled his head forward, teeth cutting Ken's lips as he offered him a hard kiss. "Tonight Schwarz and Weiss are going to face each other down, and I'm going to come ready to kill you."
"I'm looking forward to it," was Ken's hoarse response, and he forced himself not to think about the night, forced himself to focus only on the present, with Schuldich hot and hard in front of him. The telepath made it easy to forget.
Weiss ate dinner together that night, a last supper of sorts. Yohji and Aya left before either of the others and Ken sat uncertainly in his chair across from Omi, hands clenched around the vial Manx had given him. They had just an hour until they were supposed to meet to leave for their fight with Schwarz and Ken was starting to think that eating was a bad idea. He felt sick to his stomach and it was a wonder he wasn't getting sick from nerves.
"I'm going on the mission tonight," Omi announced out of the blue, and Ken jerked his gaze up from his white knuckles to flick his teammate a quick look. Omi wasn't looking at him. His elbow was on the table and his cheek was propped against his hand as he gazed towards the waterfall fountain that had been erected in the middle of the restaurant. When Ken said nothing, Omi slowly turned his head away from the trickling water to consider his teammate. "I know Manx must have talked to you today," he said. "I saw her car out back earlier but she didn't come in to talk to me."
Ken wondered if he should lie. In the end, he couldn't think up a good story and he wasn't at all interested in lying to Omi when this was going to be their last conversation alone together. "She doesn't want you to go with us tonight."
Omi gave a quiet, derisive snort and looked away again. Ken had been expecting that reaction and searched for a justification for such an order. "You shouldn't go," he said at last.
"Am I not part of Weiss?"
"Am I not part of Weiss?" Omi repeated patiently, blue eyes distant. Ken considered him where he sat, studying his face, and he felt a little more of his heart break.
"You are," he said at last, very quietly.
"This is my team. It has been my team since the beginning, and I resent the implications that I am not fit to fight and die with my team."
"You understand, don't you?"
"I understand that your life means more to Kritiker than ours do, and rightly so. We can be replaced, but you can't. You're their future, you're the heir."
"I don't want to be Kritiker's future, Ken," Omi told him. "I wasn't raised to be its future. I was raised to be the present, and this is the moment in which I am to act. I will not stay behind while my teammates suffer for what Kritiker's politics have fated them to. Weiss is all that I am and all that I have to give, and I will give it everything I have left. If we are to face Schwarz and die tonight, then that is how I want it to be. Would you have me wake up every day for the next sixty years and know that I let you three walk away from me?" Ken had nothing to say to that and Omi looked back at him, blue eyes ancient and terribly sad. "Weiss is the only family I have, the only thing I have left to believe in, the only thing I have to die for. Without Weiss I am nothing. I will fight with Weiss and for Weiss. Would you refuse me that right to choose what I do with my own life, when Kritiker has spent so long dictating it to me?"
"Omi…" Ken wasn't sure what to say to that and he had to look away. "I don't… I don't want you to die," he said at last, almost too quiet to be heard. "I don't want us to go there and none of us walk away. I want one of us to live, at least. Someone to remember us, someone to survive and grow old like we always joked we would."
"Ken…" Omi pushed himself up from his chair and moved around the table to sit beside his older friend. "We will be remembered," he promised Ken, leaning to one side to prop himself against Ken. "Every life we've ever saved, every girl we've ever given smiles and flowers to, every person you've helped cross the street… We never forget the things that have happened to us; these things just slide from memory temporarily. But every kindness ever extended to us becomes a part of who we are, and every person who you were ever a hero to will always remember Weiss."
Ken stared down at the vial once more. "You make me feel selfish," he decided at length, "for being so scared to die."
Omi wrapped an arm around him and gave him a fierce squeeze. "We're all scared," he admitted in a whisper. "But we know we're right. What better peace of mind could you ever have, except from the knowledge that your life has truly meant something?"
Ken didn't have an answer for that, but it did make him feel better. Omi wasn't waiting for a response and the two sat in silence for the rest of the hour until the mission, side by side, thoughts far away from the restaurant they were sitting in. At least Omi's watch beeped to warn them of the time and they picked themselves to their feet, brushing wrinkles out of their clothes. Kritiker was picking up the tab so they left, and Ken gave Omi a ride back to the flower shop on the back of his motorcycle.
The other two were waiting downstairs, dressed and ready to go, when Omi and Ken were finished changing and met them down there. They stood apart from each other in the basement and Ken thought of the vial he'd left behind in the restaurant as he gazed around at their serene expressions. At last Omi smiled, and then Yohji smiled, and Ken could feel his own lips curve in response. He wasn't sure what it was but even Aya offered them a smile, and Omi gave his hands an energetic clap.
"All right," he said. "Let's make them rue the day they ever crossed our paths!"
"Let's," was Yohji's drawled answer. "They've been a pain in our necks for far too long."
"They deserve this," Aya agreed.
All three looked towards Ken and he allowed himself to drink in their energy, not caring whether it was a façade or not. He offered them the most reckless grin he had, hands propped on his hips, teal eyes alight and ready for battle. "Let's kick their asses!"
"I'll buy the beer afterwards," Yohji offered. "We can crash at my place."
"Your place is a mess, Yohji," Omi taunted him.
"Aya's, then?" Ken asked, throwing the redhead a sly look.
"Or not," was the easy response. "The basement will do just fine."
"Perfect," Yohji decided, clapping them each on the shoulder as he started for the stairs. "I'll provide the booze and we can all lounge around and watch all of Omi's downloaded pornography."
"Yoh-jiiii," Omi ground out, and Yohji and Ken just laughed at him.
And suddenly Ken realized that everything was going to be okay. This was their destiny. White against black and they'd always known it was coming, Weiss and Schwarz and there'd never been the space to give ground. The ideals of the groups were too different to ever offer a compromise and the assassins' pride never let them admit they might be wrong. Schwarz fought for the underworld because it was all they understood, and while Ken regretted that, he'd come to understand Schuldich enough in these few months to decide that he couldn't write Schwarz off as brainless. Schuldich was sane and level-headed; he understood exactly what he was doing. He had his reasons for it just like Ken had his, and while he wasn't evil, he wasn't a good person, either. They stared each other down from opposite sides of the river and the time had finally come to break the stalemate.
This wasn't about Ken and Schuldich; this wasn't about Weiss and Schwarz. This was about everyone Weiss had ever killed and bled for, every picture Kritiker had shown them of the victims they hadn't been able to save. This was for their city, their country, their world. It was a confrontation of right and wrong and if no one else was going to stand up and fight it, then they would. So what if they were going into battle with the odds stacked impossibly high against them?
Sometimes it didn't matter that the good people lost.
Sometimes all that mattered was that they dared to speak up and say that something was wrong.
Ken found Schuldich on the second floor. There wasn't much of a 'finding' to it. Weiss was distracted with bodyguards and the telepath had sent Ken a message to let him know Schwarz was going to be stopping by shortly to see who was creating such a fuss. He'd then proceeded to tell a Ken a way out of the room and a back path down the hall to the employees' only stairwell, and Ken took them up to the second floor and headed down the hall to where Schuldich was waiting for him.
The German was sitting on a desk, orange hair spilling freely around his face. He was dressed in the green jacket Ken had associated with him so long ago and Ken closed the door behind himself as he considered the change in outfit. He was sure it meant something, even if the meaning was beyond his comprehension. He was sure there was some sort of deep meaning in it for Schuldich to go from what he had been and through all of those crazy changes and back to this. The outfits, the stylish clothes, the hair dyes… And now he was back to Schuldich of Schwarz, telepathic Mastermind.
The German was smoking and he wiggled the cigarette at Ken in greeting. "Shouldn't be long before your teammates find out where you've gone," he said. "I'm guessing the final confrontation will all take place near the stairs when they try to fight their way to your side. How foolishly sentimental, isn't it? You all came here knowing that we're going to kill you but you still would throw down your lives for each other to buy them more time. They'll come up here because two of them know exactly why you broke away and they're not going to trust you to fight me on your own."
"I'm not incompetent," Ken returned. A sharp clenching of his glove had his blades hissing out and he considered the blood that already stained them from the guards downstairs. "I've killed more people in the last several years than you have. How do you know you're still in good enough shape to take me out?"
Schuldich shifted and pulled a gun out of a shoulder holster, wiggling it at Ken. "Because I've got a shiny gun and all you've got are some pointy claws," he answered, and he sighted down the gun at Ken. "It's like riding a bike. You never forget how to shoot; you never forget how to kill."
"Something tells me you're not fond of that memory, or you'd have used that gun a lot more in the past few years."
Schuldich considered that for a long moment and then set the gun to one side, focusing on finishing his cigarette. "I'm a telepath," he muttered at last, blue eyes distant. "Telepaths aren't supposed to kill, and they know that."
Ken eyed him with some surprise, wondering how he was supposed to react to that. Schuldich shrugged and sighed, grinding his cigarette out on the desk. He slid from his perch and propped his hands to either side of him, fingers curled around the edge of the wood. The gun was resting against one hand; Ken knew he could pick it up and have it pointed at the brunette in less time than Ken could think about jumping for him. The lazy posture meant nothing; they were standing across the room from each other locked in their own draw of sorts.
"I remember how to fire," Schuldich assured Ken. "Like I told your pipsqueak little friend, the gun's got quite a few memories attached to it. For the sake of Schwarz, I don't mind adding one more."
"So nice to know you'll remember me," Ken returned in a drawl, and Schuldich grinned.
"Come on, then," the telepath invited, eyes half-lidded. He tilted his head to one side and orange hair fell into his face. Ken's gaze studied the way his eyes almost seemed to glow behind his bangs, studied the graceful curve of his throat. His eyes lingered on Schuldich's mouth and finally he forced his stare up to meet Schuldich's gaze again. Schuldich's mouth curved into a smirk and Ken felt his own mouth twitch in answer.
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