||Chapter 18||
"Uncertain Heart"

Curtis Riddle sat slumped low in a booth of an upstairs coffee house, nose stuck in the pages of his bible as he reached for his iced coffee with hands that shook slightly.
Again and again his eyes moved over the pages of the book he had practically memorized years ago. He found himself having to turn to it more and more often these days to remind himself that he was doing what God wanted him to do; that he must be strong.
But oh the things he had seen in his mind's eye-!
These men he had come here to see were even more horrible than he'd first imagined. A part of him wished fervently that he had never ran across that man back in New York-- the tall blond whose eyes had been so cold as they moved over him briefly, their shoulders brushing in the busy streets of America's Big Apple. The images that had flooded Riddle's mind at that brief contact had caused him to stumble in shock. He realized that he must go to Japan to save the people this strange blond had met. Save them.. or destroy them, if they had gone too far down Satan's path.
But ever since his arrival, things had just been getting worse.
These men were even more diseased than he'd originally thought. They had even started to corrupt the innocent girl he'd met in the flower shop.
He'd plucked up his courage enough to venture into the shop just last night, and had found a dark cane- silver tipped -resting against a shelf. At the sound of voices, he'd snatched it and ran in a moment of distasteful cowardice. But at least now he knew what must be done.
The things the cane had shown him were jumbled and terrible. He'd dropped it in the gutter and retched until his throat burned. It had belonged to a woman and now the dark-haired American, both of whom had left behind dark stains of their actions. The woman's had been bad, but child's play compared to the wave of pure evil he sensed from the dark-haired American who now wielded the cane. Some were faded and hard to grasp- things from the distant past. Others were all too clear and recent. Even now, he saw some of those ghastly images whenever he closed his eyes.. heard the echoing screams and voices ringing in his ears as if from the end of a long, dark tunnel. He was afraid just to sleep anymore. He didn't know how much longer he could bear the things he had been shown.
...Hands dripping with blood, a dark and sinister smile on the face of a tall man who had never shown love to the one person who needed it most, hatred, pain, sharp and unceasing, and everywhere death and murder and betrayal.
And amid the jumbled murmur of the voices of the past, one scream always rang out to smother the rest, a child's voice of heart wrenching grief.

And flickering over the more recent images, a brief, blurred glimpse of crimson that rode underneath almost everything. A flash of amethyst eyes-
Riddle shook himself back to awareness, fixing his eyes firmly on the page. This was no time to dwell on the darkness of his quarry's souls. He must gather his courage for the task that had befallen him. He must make sure he was ready in body and in spirit for the holy quest he was on.
Curtis Roy Riddle would die before he let the minions of Satan inherit the earth.


They had hung the "vacation" sign on the front door of the shop and discussed the battles that were sure to come. They had talked and strategized and contemplated in the basement until Manx had been satisfied they were ready for whatever Rosenkreuz chose to throw at them. It was after lunch when she finally retrieved her purse from the kitchen and called their meeting to an end. Ran went upstairs with her, under the illusion that he was walking her to her car to say something in private. The others, assuming he was simply going to try and argue about the wisdom of hiring the Adir'avar, let him go without a word.
He'd walked Manx to the back door, watched her drive away, then pulled on his trenchcoat- more to cover his sword than anything else -and strode off down the street. He needed time to himself to think- to sort through his tangled thoughts. He'd been cramped with the others for long enough that it was beginning to make him jittery. He desperately craved his quiet time; his time alone when he would simply sit or walk as he reflected on things or thought through plans that Omi had presented.
He walked several blocks, hands in his pockets, his steps unhurried as he lost himself in his own mind, forcing himself to accept the things he saw there, no matter how much they made him cringe.
The most pressing issues, of course, were the ones concerning the Adir'avar and the Vampires in general.
He was also still wary- perhaps even paranoid -about anyone outside the close-knit group he was accustomed to. The Jackal may seem honorable, but Ran was not about to let his guard down. Especially for one his sister seemed to be intent on befriending.
And of course there was Brad Crawford.
He pressed his lips tightly together, taking in a deep breath to calm his jumbled emotions.
It figured. It just figured. Just when he was starting to relax his guard around the other man, to push aside his past animosity towards him, even going so far as to.. He flushed. So far as to let the man kiss him, for god's sake.
Just when he was starting to tentatively examine the strange feeling the older man evoked in him with his patient pursuit, his golden eyes, and the twitch of his lips in the beginnings of a smirk...
Why, after all of that, did it all have to take a sharp turn for the worst?
Ran held no respect for Schuldich. He didn't even like the man. He merely tolerated him for the sake of the team, since the others seemed to get along with him fairly well. Aya was fond of him for reasons unknown, and Yohji was sleeping with the damned man. So for the most part Ran tried to put up with him, even if he held no respect for the man whatsoever.
But that hatred that had rolled through the bond like a dark tidal wave had reminded him eerily of the loathing for Taketori that had consumed him not that long ago. It was an honest, dark, and old hatred, directed towards the American with the blast of a flame torch, and it had shaken Ran to his core. Never had he felt Schuldich slip that much in the bond to display such raw emotion-- aside from the time Omi had forced Salem to revert back to Schuldich, tearing free the shadows of memories best left forgotten.
It had made all those niggling doubts that had finally slackened off in the back of Ran's subconscious to leap to the front again. That was the biggest reason you despised Crawford so much, they reminded him earnestly. He never seemed to care what it took to get things accomplished. The cold and merciless glint to his eyes and the taunting turn of his lips reappeared now only on missions, and sometimes a faded version emerged when he was taunting Schuldich or Ran. But what if inside he was still the same? The same bastard who cared nothing for anyone but himself. Was this all a game to him? Was he merely interested in getting Ran into bed, only to drop him the next day like dirty laundry? The thought infuriated Ran, but it also made him feel stupid, and set off a distant ache somewhere in his chest.
He took a bullet for you, his conscience murmured, and his frown deepened as he wandered aimlessly through the city, ignoring the people he passed.
He may be crippled for the rest of his life, all because he took a bullet meant for you. But was that what had really happened? What if he had misread it, and Crawford had taken advantage of that? What if the American had never intended to get shot, and hadn't seen it coming at all? He could have been pushing Ran out of his way so he could get into the fight, maybe shoving him aside in disgust at his sudden weakness upon seeing his sister again. Maybe he had been just as surprised as Ran when that shotgun had gone off and destroyed his knee.
He blinked, jolted from his deep thoughts, and looked around quickly, tensing in preparation for fight or flight. In his musing, he had wandered close to the park, and there was a figure just behind the fence waving to get his attention.
"Yo, earth to Ran!"
He blinked, turning to face his old friend. "Ken.."
The scarred assassin grinned at him, propping his elbows on the fence and facing the older man from inside the park. "You look like you've got a lot on your mind." Despite his friendly smile, his eyes were serious. "I can understand that, but you really shouldn't be wandering around by yourself."
"I can take care of myself," Ran reminded him with an edge to his voice. "Besides, it's only mid afternoon."
Ken shrugged with one shoulder, and Ran found his eyes fastening on the dark band around his friend's throat. Farfarello's collar. He smoothed his face into an icy, impenetrable mask- the face of Abysinnian -before his distaste could slip free.
"The Turned can walk around in broad daylight, remember?" Ken turned his head slightly to watch a small group of children punt a soccer ball around, screeching and laughing. A wistful look crossed his face, his fingers digging into his arms. Watching him, Ran found himself wondering for the upteenth time how Ken could have been so willing to give up the life he had become accustomed to as Siberian just to live with a deranged Berserker and his horde of Vampires. Aya had once- with a dreamy look in her eye -said that was what love did to a person. Ran was of the personal opinion that Ken was just a little stupid, but had kept it to himself.
He found himself studying with a mix of resignation and disapproval this new version of the man he had worked alongside with for several years. The scars he had accrued due to the rough handling of Farfarello and more of his kind in the beginning of the whole Vampire mess were an unwelcome addition that did nothing to earn the Irishman brownie points in Ran's eyes. The scars were not so bad as to be disfigurements, but they had erased any chance of the young man ever again looking like "just another boy next door". Actually, it was his emotional scars that had disfigured him, in the end. In some ways it had strengthened Ken- made him jaded enough to lose the lingering traces of naivety and prepare him for his new existence among Tokyo's undead population. But it had also, from what Ran could discern, killed a part of the previously optimistic boy. In gaining his new awareness and edge, he had lost some of the innocence that was his charm. He had switched from hopeful optimist to pessimist in a frighteningly short amount of time. Sometimes he was borderline cynical, which perhaps explained why he could take some of Schuldich's less scathing comments so calmly. It bothered Ran how much his friend had changed since the battle against Agammedo, and a part of him would always hold Farfarello ultimately responsible for that.
"Himeno has gotten a team together," Ken said suddenly, shaking Ran from his dark contemplations. "Is the shop closed today?"
"Yes." Ran frowned. "But we're not meeting there."
"I didn't think so," Ken said easily. "Actually, Farfarello wants them to come to his caves. When the Vampires see what we've got on our side, they'll think twice about mutiny. It will also- hopefully -make them a little more confident in victory. They hate the Adir'avar, but they have a wary respect for their skills, at least."
"Hn." Ran was not looking forward to entering those caves once again, but he'd be damned if he'd admit he was afraid. "Wokatta. When?"
"Six," Ken said promptly. "That way we have plenty of time before sunset."
Ran nodded solemnly. "How many of them are there?"
"I think she mentioned.." Ken thought for a moment, tapping his fingers on the rail of the fence. His eyes drifted towards the kids with the soccer ball again. "Six, not including herself. They're the team she usually works with, minus a couple who weren't too keen on helping the infamous Traitor."
"Is she their leader?"
"Iie." Ken shook his head, dragging his eyes back to Ran. "I think she could be, but she's not interested in leadership."
Ran snorted. "Is that why she obeys Farfarello?"
Ken shrugged, pushing himself away from the fence. "That's probably part of it. Anyway, you'd better head back before Aya-chan sends out a search party." He gave a small, lopsided grin. The effect was ruined by the shadows in his eyes that seemed to never go away.
Ran caught a hint of movement by a sakura tree nearby, and stiffened. Ken turned to see what he was looking at, then faced his friend again with a dismissing wave of his hand. The sun glinted off the top of his bugnuks, peeking out from underneath his jacket sleeve. "That's just Flint. You're not the only one who wanted to go for a walk to get their head straight. I just have to do mine with a bodyguard." He rolled his eyes to show what he thought of that. "Well, see you tonight."
Ran nodded, still watching the figure under the sakura tree. "Ja." He turned and headed in the direction of the flowershop, steps unhurried.

He was about halfway there when the scent of a distinct brand of cigarettes alerted him to an all-too familiar presence. He came to a halt in the middle of the bustling sidewalk and looked up, staring in disbelief at the man lounging against a streetsign not three yards from where he stood.
Even as this new persona, Ran's old partner chose to flaunt the willowy body he'd been blessed with. Snug-fitting fishnet shirt, leather pants that clung to him like a second skin, flaring over heavy black boots. A collection of thin silver bracelets covering one forearm, the other hand adorned with two large rings. Honey blond hair was pulled back in a short but loose ponytail to show off vibrant emerald eyes. Ran found himself caught in that amused gaze that for a moment reminded him eerily of Schuldich- minus the cruel glint. He looked hot, and like he knew he was. Passing women glanced shyly in his direction, but his eyes remained on the redhead before him.
"Yohji-" Ran took a step forward unconsciously, gaze locked with his friend's. The name was an exhalation of breath, too quiet to be heard over the hustle of pedestrian traffic and the roar of cars in the street.
The older man reached up, bracelets clinking together as he removed his cigarette from sultry lips curving in the wide, familiar grin that had coaxed so many women into his bed in the past. "So you're the pyro," he drawled, eyes raking Ran from head to foot. Ran found himself momentarily thrown for a loop, unable to do anything but stare. The tone and the openly appreciative look to those eyes had never been turned on him. He'd seen Yohji work his magic on countless women before, but never had Yohji been so bold as to appraise Ran in such a way-- as if he was wondering if Ran tasted as good as he looked. Not even Crawford looked at him that way.
A slow flush rose in Ran's face, and he was still too off balance, his mind tripping in confusion as Yohji pushed himself from the pole and strolled towards him, flicking his cigarette into the street. He found himself pinned by those burning eyes, and didn't remember until the last second that this wasn't Yohji.
It was Silk. Rosenkreuz's new puppet.
Bile rose in his throat at this bitter fact, even as his hand flew to the hilt of his katana. He took a defensive step back, narrowing his eyes and forcing himself to accept that the man before him was his enemy, not his lazy, sarcastic partner.
"Don't come any closer," he warned.
Yoh-- Silk! he corrected himself.. Silk stopped obediently, raising his hands over his head, still grinning. "Whoa there, pyro. Or can I call you Ran? I don't have any firepower on me." His eyes skimmed over Ran's form again, his grin broadening. "I like your coat."
Ran could only stare, stupefied. Was Yohji hitting on him??
"Look, I really don't think we should get into anything nasty around so many innocent bystanders, do you? It'd cause a scene, and someone might get hurt."
Ran felt something like relief seep through his veins. Omi had been right. Even Erased, it was not in Kudou Yohji's nature to put innocents at risk. Ran glanced around quickly. "Are you alone?"
Silk's smile could have chased away rain clouds, and his eyebrows arched. "Why? You willing to fix that? We really should go somewhere else anyway..."
Ran seized his embarrassment, stomped on it, and shoved it back in a closet. He offered his iciest glare. "What do you want?" He had to stall him. Schuldich. He sent the thought out as loud as he could, not sure how much distance hindered the German.
"Actually, if you want me to be honest," Silk sighed dramatically, "I was sent to take you out if possible, or bring you in. Since you're being so civilized about this, I'd rather you just come along quietly. I mean, I'm assuming you know I'm an enemy, but you haven't turned me into a pile of ash yet."
Ran's fingers tightened their grip around the hilt of his katana, still hidden under his coat. Don't, he warned himself. Don't look at him as if he's Yohji. He's your enemy. Pretend he's Schuldich.
"Look, why don't we go somewhere a little less public.." Silk suggested, glancing at the people walking by.
Ran hesitated, and despite his better judgment, his grip loosened, then finally fell from his sword hilt. He gave a brief nod, keeping his face stern.
Silk grinned at him, turning halfway and beckoning. "I hope you won't think it's too sleazy if we go behind that restaurant over there to discuss this."
Ran declined to comment, following the other man around the nearby ramen restaurant. Why wasn't Schuldich answering him? He hesitated, before calling out almost reluctantly, Crawford.
They reached the parking lot behind the restaurant, where only a few employee cars were parked. As Ran stood uncertainly, looking at the taller man's back, he felt a familiar touch to his mind.
What is it?
Ran felt a mix of relief and uncertainty at the voice. Crawford. It's Yohji. He's here.
There was a pause as Crawford processed this, thinking quickly.
In the seconds it took for the American to come up with a plan or warning, Silk had already acted.
He turned on his heel swiftly, flinging up an arm. Ran's assassin instincts caused him to duck, but he was slowed just a shade by the knowledge that this was Yohji- and the childish confusion that his friend would be attacking him.
Luckily for him, Silk wasn't aiming to kill. His wire snapped out, wrapping itself around Ran's torso and pinning his hands helplessly to his sides. With a strong yank, he pulled the younger man off his feet. Ran grunted, wincing as he landed heavily on his side. He squirmed quickly, but there was no slack in the wire; Silk was pulling back on it, keeping the line taut. Ran was snared.
Abyssinian? Crawford's voice was sharp as the redhead's emotions flooded onto the open web.
Snarling, Ran shot a heated glare up to the man he had worked side by side with for years, his trenchcoat the only thing that saved him from having the wire slice into his flesh.
Silk gave a small grin, shrugging one shoulder in apology. "Sorry it has to be this way, Fujimiya-san," he said ruefully. "But orders are orders. I can at the very least try to put in a good word for you."
A good word?
Then Silk was taking a few quick steps forward, delivering a sharp kick to his temple.
Ran fell backwards into darkness, deaf to Crawford's shout in his mind.


Omi jumped as Crawford's fist crashed into the table, making the plates left over from lunch bounce.
Nagi's eyebrows arched, his eyes fixed on his leader. Omi stared in surprise at the flash of anger that darkened the American's face before it was wiped away and replaced by a cold mask.
He rose abruptly from the table, grabbed his cane and strode from the room. Omi and Nagi exchanged a glance and hurried after him.
"Where's Schuldich?" Crawford snapped over his shoulder.
"Ah.. I think he's in the basement," Omi guessed nervously.
They followed him to the shop's section and watched silently as he pushed open the basement door with excessive force. Nagi's eyes went round as dinner plates as Crawford did something the telekinetic had rarely if ever seen before.
He shouted, his voice a loud bark that made Omi jump again. "Schuldich!"
There was some grumbling, then the German's voice drifted up irritably. "Can't a guy get some sleep around here? Jeeez." He came stomping up the stairs, scowling tiredly. "What's with you people? First the human blowtorch tries to interrupt my beauty sleep, now--"
Crawford reached out and seized a fistful of cloth, hauling the squawking telepath forward. Schuldich cursed angrily in German as he knocked his shin stumbling up the steps.
"Damn it, Crawford, let go of me," he snarled furiously, then stopped at the look on his partner's face.
Crawford was visibly trying to control his temper, his words slow and cold. "Did it ever occur to you that there might have been a good reason Fujimiya was trying to contact you?"
Omi took in a quick breath. "Nani? What's going on?"
Crawford ignored him, gaze locked with Schuldich's.
The German's face was carefully neutral, and he gave a slight shrug, hindered by the grip Crawford had on him. "No. Why? What's got your boxers in a knot, Crawdad?" Animosity lit the backs of his eyes, an edge to his voice. "Calm the fuck down and let go of m-"
Crawford shoved him away with barely suppressed violence.
"Crawford," Nagi protested sharply, seizing Schuldich swiftly with his Gift and preventing him from tumbling down the stairs.
Crawford blinked and took two slow steps back, gathering his composure around him like a blanket.
Fury flashed across Schuldich's face as he straightened, and for a moment Omi was suddenly afraid the two of them were going to fight.
"Ne, minna!"
Everyone froze as Aya, who had been upstairs catching up on homework, bounded into the room with a bright smile. "Can anyone tell me what..." she trailed off, her smile faltering as she sensed the thick tension in the room. Schuldich, unable to mask his anger, instead turned his face away. Omi and Nagi stared helplessly at her while Crawford adopted his most blank expression, eyes hooded to hide the smoldering anger in them.
"Wha... What's going on?" Aya asked hesitantly, looking around at them all. "Schu-san?"
"It's nothing, Aya," Crawford said quietly. "Go back to your room and ask the Jackal to come down here, please."
Aya stared at him blankly for a long moment.
Abruptly her eyes narrowed, and she crossed her arms over her chest. Lifting her chin defiantly, she glared at the older man. "No," she said clearly.
Crawford's brows went up.
Schuldich, who of course was privy to her private thoughts of the past week or so, didn't react.
"Aya-chan," Omi started, but she ignored him.
"I'm not a little girl," she snapped, a glint of the famous Fujimiya temper in her eyes. "And frankly I'm a little tired of everyone treating me like a porcelain doll. Every time something happens, it's 'Go to your room, Aya' or 'Didn't you have something to do, Aya?'. Well I'm sick of it. Maybe I'm not a big tough assassin, and maybe I don't have some all-powerful Gift, but I'm just as much a part of this as you are. I would rather know what's going on and what to expect than just sit in some corner like a child and watch you all put yourselves in harm's way just to keep me in the dark." She took a deep breath. "Tell me what's going on, or I'll find out myself."
There was a long moment of silence following this speech as they all stared at her, with the exception of Schuldich.
Finally it was the telepath who broke the silence, turning his face- now carefully composed -towards her. He offered her a smirk. "The kitten has claws," he drawled.
"Aya-chan, we weren't trying to make you feel like that," Omi mourned, instantly apologetic.
"We just don't want you hurt," Nagi murmured.
"Please just tell me what's going on," she sighed, looking hurt.
Crawford finally gave a slight nod. "It's Ran," he said.
Aya's eyes widened.
Crawford's gaze flicked towards Schuldich accusingly, but the German was studying Aya thoughtfully. "He ran into 'Silk'."
Schuldich's eyes jerked towards him, his brows furrowing. "Nani? Did they fight?"
"Likely. I got cut off. Either he's unconscious... or..." he glanced towards Aya, who was staring at him in horror.
"...I'll get the Jackal," Nagi said quietly, and left the room.

Author's Notes: And now things get fun *wicked grin*

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Ch. 27