Ken felt every muscle in his body freeze. A mirror, Ran had said. His breath caught in his throat and it took a moment before he could force himself to exhale. He let his breath hiss through his teeth slowly, allowing the tension to melt out of him. Brown eyes lifted from his plate to lock on Ran's form. This was probably just coincidence. He told himself that, but that didn't stop his heart from quickening in his chest. He realized Nagi was holding out a plate towards him and took it, setting it to his other side absently without serving himself anything off of it.
"The pictures are from stories?" he asked.
Ran gave a slight nod, moving a platter closer to Omi and watching as the boy served himself. "The gloves and jewels are from a story about a man who turned everything he touched into treasures, the sword is from Arthur, and the mirror is Lucifer's Mirror."
"Lucifer's Mirror, eh? Sounds pleasant," Yohji said dryly, serving Crawford rice.
Ran lifted a shoulder in a faint shrug. It took him a moment to realize all eyes were on him and he blinked, seeming to be mildly surprised that he had captured everyone's interest. He glanced towards Omi, and the boy gave him a smile that urged him on. Apparently Ran wasn't used to the group being interested in such dry things as history, but the name of the mirror had been enough to pique their curiosity, even if it was just a vague wondering for a few.
"There wasn't enough information on it to make the book," Ran said, taking a sip from his cup and fixing his gaze at a point near the middle of the table to avoid meeting anyone's questioning stares. "Not many are willing to talk on it, and it's not a well known artifact." He took another sip of his drink and set the glass aside, ready to launch into an explanation behind the name of the mirror. Ken listened raptly, telling himself to not get any sort of hopes up.
"The mirror seems to have originated from Spain. That's where the first reports of it came from, anyway, and none have been able to trace it back further. It's an ancient mirror, supposedly, but no one would give me a date on how old they guessed it to be. No one wants to talk about it because it is cursed and has a devastating affect on the people who work with it. Not everyone was affected, but a significant portion of the researchers were destroyed - enough to earn it its name.
"You see, it drives a person to madness. Some people would suddenly forget everyone around them, would suddenly forget their purpose and location. Friends they had known for years- and in one case a family- were strangers. Some started speaking an entirely different language and couldn't understand a word of Spanish. Many fled, and only a few could be retrieved before they got far. They were searching for something familiar, struggling to escape the research lab as if it was a horrible thing to them. This lab that they had devoted years to was suddenly a nightmare. A few went hysterical, a few became completely introverted. Some tried to communicate with the new 'strangers' around them but couldn't seem to be satisfied with what they were told.
"Those that managed to get away were eventually caught; the research lab spent great fortunes to track them down. They didn't want word to get out of what had happened to their workers. These people had been seeking others who had to be complete strangers to them, people in other countries that they had never met before. The people that had been sought out were bewildered; they had never seen these researchers before. The lab workers were all dragged back, kicking and screaming."
Ran tilted his head to one side. "Every last one of them committed suicide." He lifted his cup and took a delicate sip. "Of my two sources, they each had a different ending to the story. One announced that it had been destroyed due to an outcry within the lab. Another said there was a rumor it was transported to America, but he didn't know where and no one would tell me. That's about the time the lab informed me it was time to leave their people alone and return to Japan." He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. "No one would help me gather enough information to write the article…A shame; it's an interesting story."
Yohji gave a low whistle. "A madness induced by a mirror?"
"You suppose such a story will curb his vain habits of preening?" Omi asked Nagi in a mock stage whisper.
"It'd be a miracle if it did," Nagi answered, sending Yohji a cool, amused look. "I think the mirrors would get lonely without him staring in them all the time, though."
Yohji scowled at both of them. "You don't have to appreciate my good looks," he informed them, gesturing towards Crawford. "I'm sleeping with him, not you kids."
Nagi made a face. "Kindly keep anything you're doing with my cousin to yourself."
Yohji smirked, leaning forward. "What's the matter, chibi?" he asked. "Shall I tell you what we did last night…?"
Crawford calmly clapped a hand over his face, using it to push him back into his seat. Yohji grinned as Crawford drew his hand back, leaning in to press a kiss to the corner of the older man's mouth. "You'd think a fifteen year old would be more interested in sex," he mused.
"Not when you're talking about my _cousin_," Nagi answered.
Ken was only half listening to them bicker with each other. His thoughts were still whirling around Ran's story. Anticipation curled in his stomach. "A madness induced by a mirror…" he echoed Yohji's words. Ran glanced towards him; he was the only one that seemed to hear what he was saying. Omi and Aya had sided with Nagi and were throwing taunts across the table at Yohji, who starting to throw balled up napkins at them. "It isn't a madness that makes them forget everything," he said, speaking partly to himself and partly to Ran. Violet and brown were locked together. There was nothing guarded about Ran's gaze; his eyes were patient and questioning, perhaps because Ken was speaking on a common topic that could not be twisted to any sort of suggestive offer. Also, Ran had already made his own interest on the subject clear.
"They find themselves knowing other people…other cultures…other lives." Ken felt his mouth twitch into a smile, a pained and hollow look that he could not control. He saw Ran blink, saw confusion in those eyes. "All the mirror does…is convince them of a different reality, then, doesn't it?"
"Ken?" Ran asked.
He had found the mirror. He had found his mirror. It had been sitting under his nose the entire time. Ran had always known about it, but neither he nor Schuldich had thought to check with him. Ken found his control shattering; knowing that there was someone who could guide him towards the mirror meant that his time to part Schuldich was drawing much closer. His lips were trembling and he pulled them into a hard line to try and stop the shaking.
He'd found the biggest link. He was starting on his journey home.
But it would never truly be home to him, now would it? Not with Schuldich missing.
He rose from his seat, feeling sick to his stomach. The others glanced up as he rose. He pasted on a faint smile, giving a slight bow to the table. "Please excuse me." With that, he pushed his chair under the table and left the room. He had enough control to force himself to take measured steps out. He even made it to the steps before his legs gave out on him. He knelt on the bottom step, one hand on the railing as he stared blankly at the ground.
There was the soft scuff of a shoe on the floor after a few moments, and Ken glanced over his shoulder to see Ran. The man was watching him, a faint frown on his face. His expression was guarded. "You are ill?" he asked.
Ken forced himself to his feet, taking a step backwards away from Ran. The retreat seemed to confuse the redhead, and Ken noted absently that he was probably more used to Ken moving forward rather than backwards. At least things would return to normal for him soon. The thought tasted bitter in his mind. He folded his arms over his chest, lowering himself to sit on a step. He peered upwards at Ran, studying the pale face.
"This lab…Could you tell me how to get to it?"
Ran didn't seem to understand the question, because he frowned at Ken. "It's a research facility, not a tourist attraction."
Ken's hands clenched into fists and he pulled his arms tighter against himself, hugging himself for warmth against the ice forming in his stomach. A wry smile twitched on his lips. "Fujimiya Ran, that lab facility is the last place I would ever want to see as a tourist spot. If I had my way, I would never have to see it."
"You're not making sense."
"I have to see it," Ken told him softly. "I have to. Please, tell me where I can find it. I need to find the mirror."
"You're insane enough without it," Ran informed him. It was said as an offhand reminder more than a derogatory insult. Ken found himself amused by that, though he told himself there was nothing humorous about this conversation. "Even if I told you, they'd never let you in. They wouldn't let you near it."
Ken weighed his options. He doubted Schuldich would help him in- the German would never use his gift to get Ken inside when Ken was still adamant that he remain behind. He could always try to break his way in, but that was made a little more difficult due to the fact that he didn't have the right gear. Acquiring it would take time, and time wasn't what he had.
After a moment, he squinted up at Ran. "They let you in," he said.
"Are you asking me to take you there?" Ran arched a brow at him as if he had just announced that the sky was pink.
"Would you?" Ken asked.
Ran gave him a flat look. "No."
"What would I have to give you to make you take me there?"
"To make me go on a plane with you for sixteen hours? I don't think you have anything great enough to offer, Ken."
"I'll pay for the flight. I'll pay for a hotel. I'll pay for anything we need. You don't have to sit next to me and you can have your own room. Please, Ran." He needed Ran to cooperate with him. He doubted Schuldich would go after it, since a mental invasion was an unpleasant sensation. Schuldich wouldn't want to do such a thing to one of his friends. But Ran didn't look like he was interested; it looked as if he hadn't heard a word of Ken's pleas. Standing before him was the man who could help him get back to his teammates, but the likelihood of Ran actually helping him was
depressingly small. "Please, Ran. I have to see the mirror again."
Ran sent him a Look from under hooded eyelids. "Again?" he asked coolly.
Ken froze. ~Backpedal quickly.~
"Go on," a new voice came from above them. Both looked up the stairs to see Farfarello sitting on the landing of the second floor. Ken wondered absently how long he'd been sitting there; he hadn't heard the man approach and he hadn't paid attention when he'd first come to collapse at the stairwell. Had Farfarello heard the exchange between them? How much of it? Farfarello's gaze was pointed at Ran though he was speaking to Ken. "Describe it for him."
Ken glanced uncertainly from Farfarello to Ran. Ran was giving him a look that said he obviously felt this was a lie. Ken didn't have to struggle to remember the mirror; its image was burned on his brain. "It's beautiful," he said quietly. "The frame of it is a dark blue, darker than Schuldich's eyes when he's angry. Swirled into it is a silver paint that glitters in the light. It's large, about twice the height of a man. The frame is a plain rectangle, but the paint gives it an ethereal beauty. It…I don't know. It glows, I guess, not with light, but with presence. It's powerful…it draws you in."
Ran's face had gone blank. Purple eyes searched Ken's face. Ken gazed back steadily. Ran lifted his eyes from Ken to Farfarello, but Ken kept his attention on the redhead. "There is a picture of it somewhere that I missed…?" he queried.
"Breakfast," Farfarello said simply, ignoring the question. "Eat or Crawford will come looking for you, and no one will enjoy their meal." He looked from Ran to Ken pointedly as he rose from his seat. "After breakfast, he has a story to hear." Here his eyes lingered on Ran. The author frowned faintly, not understanding. Farfarello didn't bother to explain further as he started down the stairs. He stopped beside Ken, looking over at him. "Schuldich?" he asked.
"He went out for a cigarette."
"So you fought again," Ran observed. There was a disapproving glint in his eyes as Ken picked himself to his feet.
Ken frowned, and Farfarello offered a simple explanation as he stepped past Ken: "Schuldich smokes when he is agitated."
From the way the musician said it, Ken had the feeling it was a rare occurrence, a habit only for when Schuldich was truly upset. From Ran's look, it was obvious who had driven Schuldich to start the habit. Ken looked away. Ran eyed them both before turning on his heel and starting away. Ken reached out, tightening his fingers on Farfarello's sleeve.
"Is he angry at you for helping me, Farfarello?" he asked quietly. Why was he constantly getting in the way of their friendship?
"He is angry at me because I did not help you, even though he asked me to." Farfarello favored him with an unreadable look. "The conversation did not go as he had hoped. The decision was not the one he wished."
"But I'm right…You helped show me that."
Farfarello lifted a finger at him. "I asked you to look at everything. The decision was yours. Schuldich has made his, and it is different. It is for you two to discuss."
"He won't listen to me," Ken protested as Farfarello pulled gently from his grip and started in the direction Ran had gone. "I tried this morning and he wouldn't listen."
Farfarello glanced over his shoulder, a smooth look on his face. "He?" he asked.
Ken bit off an automatic answer. He had run himself in a painful circle last night by confirming Farfarello's vague questions without thinking perhaps the teenager wanted a clarification. Instead he said nothing. Farfarello recognized that Ken was listening and spoke again, turning to face Ken.
"You forget," Farfarello said. "He already heard your side of it." He lifted a hand, lightly tapping his fingertips to his temple, and turned away. Ken watched him go in silence.
Ken remained where he was for several moments. That was true…Schuldich had sat in on the conversation between Ken and Farfarello last night. He hadn't said anything; he had left it up to the two to discuss things so that Ken didn't know he was even awake until Farfarello had pointed him out. Ken hadn't bothered to listen to Schuldich more than to hear him argue that he would not be left behind.
But that was all Schuldich had to say, wasn't it? That he wouldn't watch Ken walk away?
How could Ken listen to Schuldich's side when he knew he was right? He couldn't tear Schuldich from these people, from his friends that needed him so badly. He didn't want to listen to Schuldich; he didn't want to listen to the man say that he was going to come too, because Ken wanted him to come so badly it was tearing him apart. He could not afford to cave in because he would be hurting so many other people. Schuldich had to see that.
Ken jumped at the sudden intrusion, even as he felt a warm rush of relief that Schuldich was communicating again. Schuldich had been gone for almost an hour, and the silence from him had been deafening. ~Schuldich…~ He calmed all his worries that had sprung up earlier, that Schuldich would get in an accident, that Schuldich would be too mad to talk to him again, a million little scenarios that were both unlikely and improbable.
/We need to talk./
Ken didn't want to talk. Talking involved two people speaking, and that meant he would have to hear Schuldich's side of the story. He closed his eyes, clinging to the sound of Schuldich's voice. He could see Farfarello telling him to go talk to him, saying that they needed to discuss this. He remembered Farfarello saying that they had not come to the right conclusion, that he had not helped Ken at all. A small part of him twisted with a distant hope that Schuldich could find some way to talk him out of leaving the German behind, even as the larger part chided him for his selfishness.
~Yes, we do.~
He could listen to Schuldich's side. That didn't mean he had to agree with it. He just had to listen to it. No giving in, no letting Schuldich talk his way out of it. Period. Just listening.
/Saa, Ken…/ Schuldich sounded mildly exasperated. /Come outside./
The athlete obeyed, moving towards the front door. When he let himself out he spotted the German sitting on the trunk of his car. He was leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees as a cigarette dangled from his fingers. His hair was pulled back in a rough ponytail and he was watching the smoke that drifted up past his face. Ken approached him on quiet feet, taking in the German's expression as he approached. Schuldich didn't seem upset. He looked thoughtful.
"Hi," Ken said, at a lack of anything better to say.
Schuldich gestured to the spot next to him in offering. Ken shook his head, coming to a halt right in front of Schuldich. Because the telepath was leaning over, this brought their faces close together, and they studied each other in silence for several moments.
Schuldich was not beautiful, Ken decided. Beautiful was a term that should be reserved for feminine things. Schuldich had a masculine sort of beauty, a look to him both hard and soft. He would call the man handsome if that word didn't sound so plain. Gorgeous, he decided on. Schuldich had lighter skin than he did, most likely due to the fact that this Ken was often in the sun in shorts and a tee in soccer practice and games. His blue eyes were the color of the sky on a perfect day, but were more attractive due to the way they sparkled, due to the life within. Ken had watched those eyes as they danced down a whole array of blue, darkening to the color of the evening sky when he was angry and moving to various shades between with his mood. Right now they were a musky blue, not a happy blue but not an angry one, a contemplative color. Vibrant orange red hair glowed in the sunlight, a unique shade. There wasn't another color like that; they'd have to make a whole new crayon just for him.
~Color me a sun in Schuldich shade,~ he mused absently.
He took a deep breath finally and spoke. "Okay. Your turn to talk."
Schuldich let his cigarette fall to the driveway. Ken rubbed it out with his shoe as the telepath blew the last bit of smoke to one side. The German did not pull back; instead he clasped his hands together and perched his chin on him. He smelled of smoke and nicotine, a different scent than Yohji's usual kind but not far off. It was kind of strange to smell it. While he didn't mind the smell- he was too used to his Yohji smoking- it was odd because he had not smelled it much here.
"You have to go back through the mirror," Schuldich said. Ken didn't say anything, telling himself that he was just going to ride this out. Listen silently and then remind Schuldich he was right. Right. "You decided that last night with Farfarello. A part of you has always known you were going back. When you haven't been actively seeking it out or talking about it, it has lingered in the back of your thoughts. You refer to your teammates and anything associated with your world in present tense, not past. Your thoughts sometimes refer to them in future. A part of you has always accepted that you won't be here forever…Even when you don't realize you're doing it, you put a deadline on all the activities here. I've always known you were going back. That's not news to me."
In his mind, Ken could hear Schuldich's words from the night he had laid everything out about the other Ken – "And…you're going to leave, too." He could still hear the tone Schuldich had used, that light, nonchalant tone that did not reach his dark eyes…Schuldich had known then that even telling Ken the story of the one he had replaced would not be enough to keep him here. And Farfarello had told Schuldich "He can't stay."
Schuldich studied him, his blue eyes intense and captivating. "So you are going back, but you have decided to leave me."
Ken broke his "listen silently" rule to whisper hoarsely, "You have to stay…"
Schuldich lifted his chin enough to give a wave of his fingers, brushing that aside and perhaps telling Ken to shut up. Ken quieted; he wasn't sure he could speak again, anyway. He could feel his throat closing up and his heart was hurting again. Schuldich resettled his chin on his hands. "That's your side of the story. You're going, and you want to do it alone."
"I don't _want_ to," Ken choked out, finding the strength to speak because he was both stung and hurt that Schuldich had used that choice of wording. "Schuldich, this is the hardest thing I've ever decided I had to do. I don't want to leave you here. I don't want to leave at all. I have to see my friends again, I have to help them. A part of me misses that life, despite everything it comes with. But I like it here, too. I like the people, I like the life. I would give it up readily to go back home, but I can't just give up you. I _love_ you, and the thought of saying goodbye makes me want to die. I don't _want_ to say goodbye." His eyes were burning again and he reached up, rubbing the heels of his hands against them in a desperate effort to not start crying again.
He felt two arms around his shoulders and he was pulled forward into Schuldich's embrace. He buried himself against the other man, trapped between his hard chest and his warm arms. He could feel the man's chin resting on his head and he enjoyed a moment of delusion, telling himself that this embrace was permanent. Time could come to a halt and he would be happy, stuck forever in Schuldich's arms.
They were silent for countless seconds, numberless minutes. For a moment Ken indulged himself in the happy thought that perhaps time _had_ stopped.
Then Schuldich spoke again, shattering the fantasy. "I'm not going to let you walk away from me," he said, a fierce whisper. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to you tell me you're going to just turn and go. What will I do, Ken? Sit here and watch your shadow prance around and think of you every time I see him? I'll look for you in him; it'll be back to the same as it used to be, searching desperately in him for something I can never have. I'm not going to do it again. I've found what I've wanted for years, Ken, and I'm not going to let you take it away from me."
Ken didn't speak; he couldn't get the words out to protest. His throat was pulling tighter and he dug his fingernails into his forehead, biting his lip and taking a slow breath through clenched teeth. Didn't Schuldich _see_? He was making things harder, so much harder…
"I wanted you to speak with Farfarello, I shouldn't have let you."
~He helped me,~ Ken protested mentally.
"You can't listen to what he's saying," Schuldich told him. "He speaks on two levels, vocally and mentally. He tries so hard not to influence what anyone is saying that he doesn't do more than make a vague gesture in the direction you're supposed to go. You went the wrong way last night...He did not correct you because he could not make himself, because he knew what it would mean."
Schuldich took a deep breath and released it slowly, a soft sigh over Ken's head. "Your biggest problem with my friends is that they would suddenly be landed with a different Schuldich." Ken didn't have to confirm it; they both knew it. "Your plan had one major flaw in it." He tilted his head to one side, resting his cheek against Ken's hair. Ken listened intently.
"Farfarello _told_ you I would go. He told you I wouldn't let you leave me here. He told you that he would let me go. Why?"
Ken thought. "Because he knew the other Ken…" he said, a faint frown gracing his lips. "Because he watched Ken fall and take you with him." Schuldich said nothing. Ken tried to figure out what was so relevant about this fact. He loosened his grip on his face, sliding his arms down to rest his fists against his collarbone.
In his mind, he heard a dish shattering.
"Crawford saw it, too," he said. "Ran knows it. Nagi knows _something_." There was Yohji's considering gaze that morning, when Ken had told him that Schuldich had gone out to smoke, that inquiry if Ken wanted to talk. "Yohji knows or suspects something."
"Omi suspects something through the great web of malice," Schuldich told him. "Ken and I never fought in front of him, but we never had to."
In Ken's eyes, he could see Omi scrambling to vacate a room for them, could see blue eyes wide as the boy studied them that first night here to make sure they weren't fighting.
The whole group knew there was something distinctly wrong with Ken and Schuldich's relationship, though the extent of their knowledge varied from full confidante to suspicion. Ken's frown deepened. Where was Schuldich going with this?
"They're a bit bothered by the past few days," Schuldich informed him. "You're not acting right. They don't know what's up, but they know something is different." He paused for a moment. "You have to go back. Fine. Go. I'm going with you. That decision is taken out of your hands. The major flaw of your decision was that no one here was going to know about the mirror."
Ken blinked, pulling back slightly. Schuldich loosened his arms to allow the athlete the movement and Ken gazed up at Schuldich's face questioningly. "You don't want them to suddenly wake up and have a different Schuldich and the Ken they knew back on their hands. Farfarello would know what had happened but even if he managed to explain it, it would be an afterthought. So they'll know."
"They'll know," Ken repeated blankly.
Schuldich lifted a finger, touching the tip to Ken's forehead. "You already slipped up to Ran this morning; I can hear it in his thoughts, can hear it in Farfarello's and in yours. You said 'again'. He already announced the mirror to the group. So we'll just fill in our half of the story. We'll tell them why you've been different and what we plan to do. We can tell them the consequences of our action and then you can see for yourself what they have to say about it."
"They won't believe us."
"I'm a telepath," Schuldich informed him, "and I don't lie."
"They'll think we've gone mad."
"Omi thought you were mad when you were raving about through the looking glasses your first morning here. We'll let them in, one big link." He reached up with his other hand, touching his other index finger to his own forehead. "Mind to mind, all nine of us."
Nine- Ken automatically knew he meant Aya too.
"They'll hear everything. They'll see what they need to see. I'll show them what you've shown me, what I've already shown Farfarello, what they've seen for themselves. We'll make them believe, somehow or another, and then you will listen to them decide. You don't want me to leave because of the group? You will see for yourself that they will let me go."
Ken was silent for a long moment, turning this over in his head. "You want to tell them," he said at last, because he had nothing better to say.
"You already knew you were going to tell Ran. Farfarello told you to, and you were going to do it anyway for the location of the laboratory."
"They'll think we're crazy," Ken said again, but his mind was turning this over in his head. Was this what Farfarello had been trying to make him think of? Farfarello had told him Schuldich's story from the view of an observer, from someone who had watched the German fall. He had asked Ken to think about the group…In this way? If so, why hadn't the Irishman just _said_ it?
"He did not correct you because he could not make himself, because he knew what it would mean," Schuldich had told him.
Correcting Ken meant Ken would realize that there was a chance he could take Schuldich with him. It meant that Farfarello would really be letting the German go. He had said he would let go, but that didn't mean he wanted to.
"He doesn't want you to go," Ken murmured.
"But he'll let me," Schuldich said, "because he wants me to be happy."
It was a bit of a thrill to think that Schuldich going with him would make the telepath happy.
Schuldich gave a soft laugh. "Isn't it obvious enough? I suppose not; you cannot hear things like I can. Did you want me to say that I loved you?" he asked, reaching up to smooth Ken's hair out of his face.
Ken's heart gave a lurch. His eyes were blurry- why oh why did they keep _filling_? "No," he said. "You don't have to."
Schuldich didn't have to, because Ken could see it in his eyes, and that was enough.
They would talk to Schuldich's friends. They would tell them the truth and the group would see it was the truth. They would be disbelieving, they would deny it, they would wonder at it, and then they would realize it was the truth.
And then- then they would let Schuldich go.
Because real friends…real friends wanted their friends to be happy.
The crushing weight was gone; Ken had not realized how heavy it had been until it lifted. He felt a lot lighter, a lot freer. It was a giddy sort of joy, a warm rush of love and relief that thrummed in his veins and tingled in his soul. He was hugging Schuldich then, throwing himself forward to wrap his arms around Schuldich's neck. He was laughing, though he did not know why- perhaps in response to the sudden giddiness that had grabbed hold of him.
~Don't leave me,~ a voice whispered, though he did not know if it was his own or Schuldich's. In the end he decided it was neither and both, a mutual plea flitting across their minds as they held onto each other. ~Don't ever leave me.~
Aya's friends were awake and packing in the sunroom. As Schuldich and Ken passed, the two college students slowly sat down and stared vacantly into space; Schuldich had put them on a mental pause. They did not need to overhear the conversation that was going to take place in the kitchen.
Schuldich entered first. Ken was behind him, holding onto one of Schuldich's hands with both of his. The seven were done eating but were lingering over their plates. Yohji had propped himself near the kitchen window to smoke. The dishes were still set out on the table, and there were plenty of leftovers. One plate, presumably Schuldich's, was generously stacked with food and was covered with plastic wrap. All heads looked up when their missing companions entered, and both Omi and Aya smiled brightly in greeting. Ken had a feeling part of Omi's smile was because he was back with Schuldich again.
"We need to talk," Schuldich announced, beckoning to Yohji. "Crawford, let him bring it to the table."
Yohji hesitated; Schuldich's words meant he was going to need the cigarette, but it was a well known fact that Crawford didn't want the smell of smoke and nicotine anywhere in his expensive house. But Crawford gave a slight nod, his eyes on Schuldich's face. Yohji carried his cigarette back to the table and sat down. Ken could feel his heart pounding in his chest and he tightened his fingers on Schuldich's hand. They'd make the group believe them. They had to.
"That was a lovely story you told the table this morning," Schuldich said, pulling Ken closer to the table. He reached out with his free hand, pouring himself a drink. "I sat outside and listened to it, figured it couldn't hurt because everyone else here sounded so interested." He lifted his glass to his lips and sipped at the water, then lowered it back to the table. Fingers danced lightly over the rim as he turned his gaze on Crawford. The man had an unreadable look on his face, and Ken remembered then that Crawford was the only other person Schuldich had taught to shield. He was the unknown factor, the one Schuldich couldn't hear.
"I found the story to be quite a surprise, not because of the content but because you knew it. You see, I've been at the library for about a week now looking for that same mirror. There's no information on it there; no one here knows it exists. If it had actually made it into Ran's book, it would have shown up in the catalog there and saved us a week of searching. Until this morning, half of you didn't know there was such a thing. But Ran knew. Farfarello knew. I knew." Here he pulled Ken a little closer. "Ken knew."
There were faint frowns on some faces, incomprehension on others. Crawford and Ran shared the same blank look. Farfarello was studying his glass as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world, though Ken knew he was listening. Ken found himself unable to look anywhere but at Farfarello, at the Irishman's slightly bowed head. Farfarello didn't want Schuldich to go. He wanted him to be happy, but he needed Schuldich more than anyone else here.
~Anyone else save for me,~ Ken admitted. He knew that, he could tell himself that without feeling guilty. He knew it because he knew Farfarello loved Schuldich like he might love a very close friend or a brother. Ken loved Schuldich in the romantic sense, in the "I cannot live without you" sense. And Schuldich…Schuldich loved him too. Farfarello knew this. That was why he was letting Schuldich go.
"Ken knew because he's seen it before." Here Schuldich's eyes flicked to Ran. "He described it to you perfectly, didn't he?" All heads turned to Ran, who inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. "You know there are no pictures of it. They don't want proof of its existence. Ken didn't see a picture. He saw the mirror." Heads turned back to Schuldich. What the German was building up to had not sunk in yet; they still had the curious expressions on. "And…he touched it."
The frowns were multiplying, the "What are you _talking_ about?" frowns for some, the "I think I see where you're going with this and I don't believe a single word of it" frowns for the others. Crawford's face was still patently blank.
"Do you know what happened nine days ago?" Schuldich asked. No one answered. Omi shook his head. "Nine days ago, an assassin went on a mission with a teammate of his. It was an infiltration, supposedly an easy-in, easy-out. But the man they had been sent to kill was the owner of a certain artifact, a beautiful mirror. It was beautiful enough that this assassin felt drawn to it, and he found himself reaching out to touch it. And suddenly there was an explosion, and he found himself thrown forward, crashing into the mirror."
Schuldich tilted his head to one side, stilling his fingers on his glass. "Eight days ago, a very bewildered man woke up in the arms of someone he knew as a cruel psychopath. He fled and ran into a man he thought was a teammate, who brought him to a dining room full of people that he knew as his friends and his enemies." At this, he glanced around at the three included in Schwarz. "It must have been a rude awakening, don't you think, to find his allies and hated enemies dining together? Two opposing assassin groups sitting down to breakfast as if there wasn't anything wrong with it. It was too much to handle; it had been a very rough morning in the few minutes he'd been awake. And he collapsed."
The frowns were fading, replaced by blank looks.
Schuldich looked towards Crawford. "You were there when he woke. You tell me that he seemed normal when he woke up." All eyes turned to Crawford, who was staring back at Schuldich with a guarded expression. Ken found his gaze drawn to the American as well, and his manager turned his eyes to lock gazes with him. "Let down your shields, Brad." It was a firm order, an unyielding request. "I know what happened that morning. I can see it in Ken's thoughts. I want them to hear what he had to say to you that morning. I want them to hear it from you."
Crawford looked back towards Schuldich, studying him for a moment. Ken could feel a small pull at his mind, and his fingers tightened on Schuldich's hands as he swayed on uncertain feet. After a moment the pulling stopped, and he could hear a murmur of foreign voices in his head. He recognized them as belonging to the others around the table. Schuldich had linked them together, as he had said he would. The only voice missing was Crawford's.
"Let them down," Schuldich said again.
There was a pause, then something slipped in Ken's mind. It was an odd sensation. He could hear the distant sound of Crawford's thoughts, but they were faint. There was a small flurry of color- memories rushing by too fast to be more than a blur- and Ken was dimly aware that Yohji had reached over to hold onto the American's arm. As disorienting as it was to watch the flood of nonsense colors, Ken knew from personal experience that it was even more so confusing for the person who was having their thoughts searched.
Then his vision was blocked out, replaced by a memory. It was Crawford stepping into the room after Ken had woken up from passing out. He watched himself throw off the covers defiantly, then hesitate. There was uncertainty dancing on his features, twisted with a bit of uneasiness. They began speaking to each other. It only took a few words before Ken exploded, half lurching forward as he yelled his frustration at his manager.
"I have never been here before! The last thing I remember was going on that mission! The computer exploded, Omi went flying, and I went crashing into a mirror! I wake up and I'm _here_, in bed with-" There was an audible choke. "We're enemies, but my friends are eating breakfast with you? Omi's uninjured and cuddling with Aya? Yohji touches you going to get coffee? Why does everyone expect me to be taking this okay? Everyone's ranting about alcohol and some team winning, but Omi and I failed the mission because it was rigged. You did it, didn't you? Tell me how you brainwashed my friends! Tell me what the hell is going on here!" Silence followed his words, a quiet broken moments later by harsh breathing. The Ken in the memory dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, rocking slightly as he struggled to control himself.
Eventually Crawford spoke. "I do not know what is wrong with you," Crawford told him. "You are not making sense."
"Then _you_ tell me what's going on! Explain to me how I got here, and stop calling me Ken! You don't know me that well! We've only clashed a few times!"
"I don't know you that well? You and I have known each other for four years now, ever since I signed you on with the Snipers. I have been your manager and companion."
"Signed me on with what?"
"Your J-league team."
Ken giggled, but it was a strange, choked sound. "I haven't been on a J-league team since I got charged for illegal activities I never took place in. And just so you know, I wouldn't accept any offer of _yours_ to sign on with _anything_. I don't deal with Schwarz. So either kill me, tell me the truth, or leave me alone."
Crawford's memory immediately vanished, leaving Ken a little unsettled as it went. He felt dizzy from it, and wondered how Schuldich could handle it, how he could handle listening to so many people at once all the time. The German turned to Omi. "You talked to him too, didn't you? Why don't you show everyone what he had to say to you?"
Omi was looking a little uneasy, and he glanced up at Ran before looking towards Ken. Finally he gave a slight nod, and the world again blanked out, replaced by another memory.
Ken was sprawled out in bed. Omi was on the ground beside the bed, his arms folded on the edge as he stared at the athlete in obvious concern. Ken gazed back, but there was something lost in his eyes. "Omi, what is going on?" he asked. "I'm so confused..."
"It could be part of your hangover," Omi answered helpfully, and Ken closed his eyes at those words.
"We were drinking?" he asked.
"Aa. Crawford-san was pretty generous last night...The party was fantastic."
"What was the party for?"
Omi hesitated, and his companion opened his eyes again. "Your team won last night thanks to your save. You were the man of the day. It was a fantastic game, Ken-kun. I was holding my breath the whole time." He laughed. "I still can't believe Schuldich managed to get you to drink so much last night, Ken-kun...It's no wonder you're feeling ill." He hesitated, eyeing Ken. "Ken-kun...?" he asked, gentler. "Are you all right?" he reached out, lightly touching Ken's face. "Your eyes..."
Ken let out a sharp laugh, pulling away from Omi's touch. He yanked the covers over his head. "It's like some fucked up fairytale," he declared, voice muffled through the blanket. "I don't believe it." He giggled again, a hysterical sound. "It's just like a fairytale, like some sort of Through the Looking Glass where you wake up in a different world..." He trailed off.
The memory stopped, and the nine found themselves staring at each other again. Schuldich held his arms off to his sides. Ken's arms were pulled with him because he refused to let go of Schuldich's hand. "You have two memories, untouched by me. It matches what you described, doesn't it, Ran, what the lab described to you?"
"That doesn't say anything," Nagi said, making a cutting gesture with his hand.
"It could be an act," Ran pointed out, lifting his cup to take a sip from it. His purple eyes flicked to Ken. "He has a talent for acting, you know."
"Ken had a failing in his acting," Schuldich said, lowering his arms back to his side. Ken moved closer. He knew those two and Crawford were the disbelievers. Omi and Aya were closer to being convinced; they believed in the truth of the memories, of the raw emotions and the obvious confusion there. They believed in Ken babbling about a mirror eight days before Ran had ever mentioned it. Yohji looked like he didn't know what to believe. Farfarello already knew.
"Ken could act, yes, but he couldn't hide." Schuldich's fingers tightened slightly on Ken's, and he looked towards Crawford again, as if convincing Crawford meant he could sway the whole group. Ken had the distinct feeling that that was the truth. Crawford did seem like he would be the hardest to convince. He and Nagi had known Ken as long as Schuldich had, thus they had watched Ken and Schuldich's interactions throughout the entire relationship. Nagi did not know as much as his step cousin did, however, and his youth would make it easier to convince him.
"The failing was in his thoughts. Ken had a guard, yes. I taught him how to make a shield a while ago." Here Schuldich looked at Ran, and the redhead met his gaze steadily. "For eight days, that shield has been gone."
"You taught him how to screen before you ever gave him the shield," Nagi said from his spot.
"The screen is a harder thing than the shield to maintain," Schuldich said. "A shield, once it is strong enough and the person is acquainted enough with it, is a permanent thing. The screen takes conscious efforts, conscious thoughts. It falls in sleep and when the person does not wish it to be up. The previous Ken's failed often enough." Ran looked down at this point, fixing his gaze on his cup instead. "For eight days, my mind has been against Ken's. For eight days, the thoughts have been consistent. He dropped the shield when I told him to that first day, and it has stayed down. The screen has not come back and one already standing that I might have missed has not fallen.
"Do you know what I can see?" Schuldich asked the group. "I can see another life. I can see nothing in his mind of this one, except what he has gained these past eight days. I see a different childhood, a different growth. I see him playing soccer and I see him forced to leave it. I see him taking on a different job and living an entirely different life. We're there, but not as us. Two separate groups opposing each other, one a band of cruel demons, the other a group of haunted justice seekers."
Schuldich tilted his cup over, letting it fall against the table. There were a few sips' worth of water left in it, and they spilled over top of the table now, water running everywhere. "You cannot wake up one morning with a different history. It does not happen. It's an impossible feat. But Ken did it. And others did it, at a research facility, when they touched the same mirror. You said it, and Ken echoed it back with perfect understanding. It wasn't really that they had gone crazy…It was that they had found themselves suddenly dumped in another person's place."
"Bullshit," Yohji muttered sullenly. It was the only thing the model knew to say. His cigarette was burned almost down to the filter. He gave the long string of ashes a violent shake to dislodge them and lifted it to his mouth, puffing several times in rapid succession.
"Ken has been acting a bit odd, hasn't he? A bit out of place, a bit confused, a bit nervous and disturbed. Ja?" Schuldich swept the whole table with his gaze. Ran looked at Crawford, as if needing the older man to cut down the memories they had seen and Schuldich's story to keep his own disbelief in check. He had heard about the mirror for himself; what Ken's memories and what Schuldich was saying now was cutting a bit too close to the story he had told that morning. Ken could hear his thoughts dimly on the bond. He was telling himself that it was a story built off of his own this morning, but the disbelief was having a hard time keeping its roots. He trusted Schuldich's gift- they all trusted his gift. Thoughts couldn't lie. Screened thoughts couldn't last. There should have been a failing somewhere.
"He doesn't belong here," Farfarello said at last. A few startled glances were sent his way. There was a brief murmur across the links, but Ken couldn't identify the voice- a thought that of course Farfarello would know about this, because he and the German were so close. "Fujimiya's mirror exists. Ken came through it. Now he must go back, and the other will return."
"If it's true, then why are you telling us?" Yohji asked, looking towards Ken. "If you believe in it, then go right ahead and jump into the fantasy. Go back."
Beside Yohji, Crawford was also staring steadily at Ken. But the American wasn't looking at Ken's face, but at his hands and the way he was clinging to Schuldich as if he was trying to suck the strength out of the German.
"I am going to go back," Ken told them.
"He doesn't want to go alone," Crawford said, speaking for the first time since Schuldich had started his story. His voice was toneless. Ken looked up at Schuldich. The telepath inclined his head in confirmation, reaching forward to set their joined hands on the table. Ken knew this was the moment when the tide turned back against them.
Up to this point, they had partially swayed most of the group. With these words, with this next truth revealed, the belief would fade in startled disbelief. It was one thing for Schuldich to tell them about the switching of the Kens and to announce that Ken was going to go back. It was quite another thing entirely to tell his friends that he was going to disappear too, that he was following this fantasy story far enough that he was going to abandon them for another world.
Schuldich's eyes were on Crawford; everyone else was secondary save Farfarello, who already knew and had given his consent. "I plan on going back with him."