Part Four

    The morning of the next day was bright and clear. Ken inhaled deeply, sucking the fresh air into his lungs. Today was the game day...He couldn't help but feel nervous, though most of him was excited. He so desperately wanted to feel the glory that soccer was again. He followed behind Schuldich down the sidewalk. The German had allowed him to sleep in this morning. Now it was ten and Ken was hungry. Schuldich had suggested eating breakfast at a small cafe instead of at the apartment. After all, the German had reasoned, they were going to be out and about anyway.

    "Where?" Ken had asked, standing in the doorway of the bedroom and gazing in at Schuldich. The German had been dressed in just his jeans then, with a shirt laying to one side for when he needed it.

    "The library," Schuldich had answered simply, toweling his hair dry and looking at Ken through the reflection of the mirror above his dresser. "I told you we would look for information on your mirror. I've got just about everything done for the show. This is the best time to go looking."

    The mirror...

    The announcement that they were finally going to go looking had been met with mixed excitement and uneasiness on Ken's part. How did they know they were going to find anything? Where would they start? All Ken knew was what it looked like and that it had been stored in a target's factory. How much help could that possibly be?

    "Not much," Schuldich tossed over his shoulder.

    "That wasn't encouraging..." Ken sighed.

    "What did you want me to do? Lie to you?" Schuldich sent him an amused glance.

    Had Schuldich's eyes always been that blue? They seemed to be a much brighter shade in this world than in the other. Or was that because the other Schuldich's gaze had always been darkened with cold arrogance and amusement? "You say you don't lie, but you seem to have acquired admirable talent at avoiding the truth."

    Schuldich grinned and approached the entrance to a small coffee shop. He tugged open the door, beckoning for Ken to go first. The delicious aroma of pastries and coffee met him as he stepped inside and his stomach offered up an eager rumble. Schuldich laughed, tugging on Ken's sleeve to pull him closer to the counter. The German knew what he wanted without looking at the menu, so Ken wondered if he frequented this place often.

    "Mildly obvious, hm?" Schuldich asked with a grin.

    Ken grinned back. "So help me out here."

    Schuldich looked back up at the menu. "The few times I've brought Ken here, he's always ordered the cheese bagel," he offered, gesturing towards the clear shelves that displayed the bagels.

    Ken shook his head and Schuldich glanced at him. "I don't like cheese for breakfast."

    Schuldich's lips twitched into the faintest of frowns before the grin returned. Ken wondered if he had imagined the frown, since it had flickered there and off again so quickly. The German turned back to the menu and studied it in silence. Ken, in turn, studied Schuldich. The telepath sent him a sideways look, lifting one eyebrow in a silent question. Ken shrugged, having no real reason to have been gazing at the other man, and looked up at the list of food. "I don't know...I might just settle for toast and coffee." That was what they usually had at the Koneko, anyway- it was quick and easy. And, supposedly, it was something they could all make themselves. Somehow or another, though, Omi always managed to be up before the others and have their toast done at just the right moment for them. Ken believed it was the boy's way of making sure he got a good morning from each of them before they went their separate ways to school, work, or break.

    "Anything on your toast?"

    "Kiwi jam and butter."

    "Has anyone told you you have horrible taste?"

    "What, did you want me to pick something else?"

    Schuldich hesitated before sending him a brief, inscrutable glance over his shoulder. "Nein. I'll get your kiwi jam." With that, he turned to the cashier and ordered their breakfast. The tall German paid and stepped to one side to wait on their food to be ready. "Do you want to eat here or on the go?" he asked.

    "Let's eat here. It looks like a cozy place."

    "Find us a table?" Schuldich asked.

    Ken nodded and turned to study the cafe at large. It was decently packed, but there was a table with just two chairs by the window. "Found one," he sent over his shoulder before padding in that direction. He felt an affirmative brush against his mind and slid into the seat, twirling the salt shaker idly. He gazed out of the window, watching the people as they passed. For a moment, he could almost pretend that he was back where he belonged...It would be his morning off, and he would have taken off to either wander the city or play soccer. When he returned for the afternoon shift, Yohji would be ready to duck out- even though the lingering scent of smoke around him declared that he had taken one too many breaks already that morning. Aya would be stuck with the double shift, since Omi would still be at school...

    The illusion was shattered when Schuldich slid into the seat across from him, and Ken ruefully let the images slide from his mind. Daydreaming would get him nowhere. "I'd ask how much I owe you," he said as Schuldich slid his toast and coffee towards him, "but I think I'll let you wait and collect it from the other Ken when he gets back."

    "Maybe I'll even make him pay interest," Schuldich mused, biting into his pastry.

    "You could," Ken agreed, taking a test sip of his coffee to determine whether or not it was too hot to drink. He set the mug back, rubbing lightly at his burned lip before chewing on his toast. "Thanks, though."

    Schuldich didn't respond, as he was much more interested in his breakfast than Ken's gratitude. Ken finished off the first piece of his toast quickly and tested his coffee. It was a better temperature now and he took another sip, turning his eyes on the window once more. As he moved to set his mug down, his companion spoke.

    "Why a flowershop?"

    Ken blinked, momentarily lost before he realized Schuldich had picked up on his reminiscing. He gave a small shrug. "It made a good cover, I suppose...I mean, how many people are going to suspect florists of being assassins?" He took another sip of his coffee.

    "I think it shows a lack of creativity."

    Ken rolled his eyes. "Maybe Kritiker just wants a source of flowers for funerals when their assassins get killed, then." He knew as soon as he said it that it was the wrong thing to say; Schuldich's mouth thinned to a hard line. He sighed quietly. "I wasn't being serious, Schuldich."

    "You joke about it."

    "Death?" Ken asked, and gave a light shrug. "It's not that we don't worry about it...But it's an integral part of our life, now. We work with death. We kill people, Schuldich. Enough blood has run over our hands that it's burned into our fingertips. That doesn't stop us from hoping for a way out, and if we take death so seriously that we can't joke about it sometimes, we're already lost...or so Yohji has said." He felt his lips twitch in a faint smile. "I believe him...The things you can't laugh about will eat you alive."

    Schuldich said nothing, and Ken picked at his second piece of toast. "I told you they won't let anything happen to Ken."

    "Ch'," was all Schuldich had to say to that, and he turned back to his own breakfast. They ate the rest of the meal in awkward silence. Ken couldn't help but feel grateful when they had finished eating and rose to go. Their napkins and styrofoam cups were tossed in the trash and Ken followed Schuldich out of the small cafe.

    It was a twenty minute walk to the library, a trip made longer by the prolonged silence between them. At least the weather was beautiful, Ken decided, looking around at the people they passed. He could not help but be relieved when they arrived at their destination, however. He knew Schuldich didn't appreciate his comment about death, but he didn't regret making it, so he would not apologize for the unhappiness it had caused the German. A part of him still found it a bit odd that a lame joke about death had unsettled the foreigner, especially when considering the artist's counterpart in the other world.

    Cool air brushed over Ken's face as he entered the library behind Schuldich. He knew this library, and he took comfort in its familiarity. He had not come often, for the library was a fair distance from the Koneko no Sumu Ie, but it was still something he recognized, something normal in this upside down world. This Ken and Schuldich lived closer than the florist-assassins did. He tilted his head back, looking up towards the balcony edges of the second and third floors. So many books...Where were they supposed to start?

    "At the reference desk," Schuldich answered simply, finally breaking the silence between them.

    Ken took that as a sign that he was forgiven for his earlier comment. "It's not like we can just go up there and ask her where we can find stuff about switching worlds."

    "This is Japan...That might be a logical question."

    Ken gave him a Look and Schuldich smirked back in response. Ken quickly squished the bit of relief he felt at the familiar expression, somewhat troubled by the unwelcome emotion. Yes, it had been weird to see Schuldich's face with such a closed-off look, but still...Ken was far more used to seeing that smirk. ~Although,~ he mused, ~it's a foreign expression in and of itself...~ This Schuldich's smirks and grins held nothing of the malice and dark amusement his other self practically radiated.

    Even so...He thought he would never see the day that he was grateful to see such a face.

    He didn't even have any reason to feel relief for Schuldich's "forgiveness," though, and that was probably a bigger problem than the comfort Schuldich's facial expression was.

    As they neared the desk, Ken's attention caught on a small billboard. Bold strokes of kanji announced that the library was going to have a well-known published author available for book signing the next day. Copies of the book would be supplied to be purchases. Ken was about to look away when he noticed the name that was scrawled out in fancy calligraphy: Fujimiya Ran.

    "Hey, Schuldich," he said, surprise coloring his voice. "Aya's going to autograph books."

    "Don't call him by his sister's name. His name is Ran," Schuldich corrected him. He didn't even glance at the billboard. "It's no shocker; he's done it before. I told you he was a well-established author."

    "I think it's cool."

    "The mirror, Ken," Schuldich reminded him.

    "Hai..." Ken stepped up alongside the foreigner, glancing back just once more. It was strange to think of Aya- Ran- as an author. He wondered what the other Ran would think if he proposed the idea of writing a book. He snorted softly in amusement; knowing his Ran, the man would probably just give him a death glare and tell him not to waste his time thinking of such frivolous things.

    A librarian noticed them and hurried over. "Good morning, sirs. Is there something I can help you with today?"

    Schuldich looked towards Ken. Ken offered a faint smile of greeting in return. "Good morning. We're looking for books on mirrors, actually."

    "Any particular kind of mirrors?"

    "Um....Strange ones?" Ken offered, knowing that it was an unhelpful attempt at clarification.

    "Picture books, possibly," Schuldich spoke up, "of antique mirrors. Anything historical, ones that are claimed to have abnormal attributes...Just about anything could be helpful."

    She hesitated, perhaps considering it an odd and very broad thing to be researching, before nodding and turning to her computer. "I will see what the database can find," she offered, "and will give you a printout. It might take a few minutes," she apologized.

    "We have time to spare," Ken assured her, at the same time wondering just how much they could waste. It took six or seven minutes before she finally handed them a rather lengthy printout. Thanking her, they moved away to examine the list. Eventually they split the pages up and wandered off to gather the resources, picking out nine or ten and meeting up on the basement floor to skim through them.

    It took four meetings like that before Ken began to get discouraged. He shoved away the thick volume he had been flipping through and rubbed at his eyes. "What if we don't find anything?"

    "Don't be pessimistic."

    "But what if we don't?" Ken demanded.

    "If such a thing exists, there's got to be something on it somewhere." Schuldich shrugged, continuing rifling through his own dusty volume. "It might take a while to find, but there has to be something. If it takes us coming back here several days until we finish this list, so be it." He pushed his book towards the discard pile and selected another. "You're giving up too early."

    "But what if there's nothing?" Ken pressed. "What if there really is no stupid mirror?"

    "Then how do you explain what's going on?" Schuldich asked, propping his elbow on the table. He perched his chin on his hand and peered at Ken. "I have to believe there's a mirror. There's no way else I can explain the way you just _changed_ when you woke up a few days ago. No one could rewrite their entire mind like that, and the rewritten memories affect bits of your personality. That's not something that happens, especially not overnight, and most especially not so thoroughly."

    "But I'm _assuming_ the mirror is what caused this. It's what I told myself to believe; it's all I could think of when I was trying to understand what was going on. I mean, I touched it, I saw everything flicker, and then boom, I woke up. So I assumed it was the mirror."

    "Then why doubt now?"

    "What if I'm dead?"

    Schuldich blinked. "What?" he asked blankly.

    "Well, there was an explosion. I could be dead for all I know."

    "Then what is this? I would sure hope that your idea of an afterlife doesn't revolve around such mundane things."

    "Okay...So let's say I'm not dead. But what if I'm in some other state of unconsciousness? I mean, look at Aya's-"


    "-sister. She's been out of it for two years. What if I got injured in the explosion and this is all going on in my head? This could be some sort of dream I've come up with, some alternative reality that I'm stuck in while my body lies off somewhere just...lying there." He shuddered at the thought. He had seen Aya's sister; he had seen her in Weiß and Schwarz's confrontation at the tower by the sea. She had been so limp, and Ken knew she been like that for years. She looked dead, just stretched out there day after day, month after month, year after year. What if he was in a state like that? Did she dream like that? Did she think she was still awake?

    "Then what am I?" Schuldich asked as Ken's unhappy thoughts trailed off.

    "A figment of my imagination?" Ken hazarded. "A pretty warped one, of course. The way I know you in my world is a twisted and monstrous bastard. Maybe it would have bothered me too much to dream about such a horrible person for however long I'd be stuck in a coma-ish state. So maybe my subconscious changed you into something I could handle, though it wouldn't explain why my subconscious would set me up as your lover."

    Schuldich frowned at him. "A figment of your imagination?" he echoed, and Ken couldn't decipher what tone he was using. It lingered somewhere between disgust, disappointment, and annoyance- not any one of the three, but not quite a mix of them. "I would like to think that you don't look at me that way. I _do_ have a life, and thoughts and memories of my own."

    "You say that," Ken said, "but it could just be my subconscious saying that as it tries to fill in the gaps of the dream so I don't realize what's happened to me and shut myself down in panic or fear or despair."

    "This is not a dreamscape set up by your mind," Schuldich told him.

    "And why couldn't it be?" Ken asked. It was depressing to think about, but who could say whether or not it was true? "This could be a dream. Maybe neither of us are real."

    Schuldich reached across the table and swat him upside the face. Ken registered the sound of flesh hitting flesh before the sharp sting set in. He lifted his hand to cover his cheek, staring up at Schuldich with wide eyes. "You hit me," he said, startled.

    "Does it hurt?" Schuldich asked calmly.

    "Yes, it hurts! What did you do that for?"

    "If it hurts, it's real," Schuldich answered simply. "Come on; we're leaving." With that, he turned on his heel and headed for the doorway to the stairwell. Ken remained where he was for a long moment, watching the telepath go with still-wide brown eyes. It wasn't until the door clicked shut behind Schuldich that he managed to get himself to his feet and follow after the older man.


    Lunch was quick and quiet before they headed towards the stadium. Ken gazed out the window, not willing to break the silence that had fallen between them once more. He didn't know what he could say to fix things. It seemed that every time he opened his mouth he just ended up making Schuldich angry. Therefore, he decided, it was ultimately better that he just shut up and follow the German around obediently.

    And so it was that they did not say another word to each other until they finally arrived at the stadium. Their prolonged silence ended when Ken stepped out of the car. Already there were throngs of people gathered, and he knew the game did not start for at least another hour. Some were tailgating while others were just laughing and talking in large crowds. Music was blaring and spirits seemed to be high. There was a slow if steady stream of cars into the parking lot. He hesitated before slinging the small duffel bag Schuldich had packed for him over his shoulder, one hand lingering on the side of the car.

    He had not seen so many people in a long time.

    "Ken~~~~~~~!!!" He glanced to one side at the piercing female cries. There was a small clump of teenaged girls leaping up and down, waving ecstatically. One was crying, but she didn't look upset at all. "We love you, Ken!!"

    Well...The girls were a somewhat normal sight, even if none had ever been moved to tears by seeing him or his teammates. He lifted one hand to acknowledge them, battling the confusing mix of uneasiness and relief. The girls started shrieking and waving more ecstatically when they realized he was actually paying attention to them.

    "The world loves Hidaka Ken," Schuldich drawled, putting a hand on Ken's shoulder and turning him towards the stadium. "Honestly, you're much too young to be enjoying such a cult following.."

    Ken winced. "Don't call it a cult," he pleaded.

    Schuldich snickered, moving his hand to rest between Ken's shoulderblades as he guided the goalkeeper forward. Ken did not protest the contact; the warmth and weight of Schuldich's hand helped give him strength. He remembered the chills he had experienced when stepping into the stadium yesterday, and that was when the seats had been empty. He was half-afraid and half-eager to see the bleachers filled.

    There was a sign announcing the home team's locker room, and the two passed through a guarded gate into the hallway beneath it. At the far end Ken could see that it opened up directly onto the field; the grass was a beautiful shade of green. Halfway down the tunnel was a door, propped open, and through it were his teammates. Schuldich steered him in there. The other men were joking as they changed. Crawford was nowhere to be seen, and Ken allowed himself a small bit of relief for that; the man's knowing gaze unnerved him.

    "Yo, Ken!" Hide greeted cheerfully, tugging his shin guard in to place. "Thanks for bringing our team mascot with you." He gestured to the telepath directly behind the brunette.

    "You are just too funny for words," Schuldich said.

    "Yeah, I know." Hide grinned and wriggled his foot to make sure the ankle paddings were sitting right. Satisfied, he began working on the other one. Ken glanced towards Schuldich, who inclined his head slightly, before moving to take an empty spot on Hide's bench. "So, Ken, you promise not to make any foolhardy saves today?"

    "I don't plan on making any," Ken answered, removing his few items from the bag. When they had left this morning, he had just pulled snap-away windbreaker pants on over his game shorts. Now he yanked off the tee had gone out in and pulled on the long-sleeved jersey, admiring the feel of it against his skin. He hurriedly drew out the rest of his gear and toed off his sneakers.

    "If he has to," another- Ginta, Ken thought- "then it's our big screw up. The Wings have nothing on us. I mean, defense might as well drop from the league if we make a mess like we did last game where he was forced to do such a thing."

    Miho gave Ken a thump on the back as he passed that almost took the air from his lungs, and the teenager had to pause before adjusting the way his socks fell over his shin guards. "Don't worry, Ken-Ken. We'll protect you."

    "If we don't, your orange-haired avenger will have us all for dinner!" another cracked, and the players laughed at that. Ken smiled with them, looking up from where he was tying his cleats to see how Schuldich was reacting to the good-natured teasing. The German was reclining against the wall, a grin curving his mouth and good humor glittering in his eyes. Ken was willing to bet that the cracks on Schuldich's permanent presence with the team were nothing new and was glad the telepath was taking the jibes in stride.

    Schuldich noticed his gaze and their eyes met, holding for a moment before Moriguchi bounded into the locker room.

    "How's it going, guys?" he asked, tossing a soccer ball lightly from hand to hand. "Almost done? We're going to go out and warm up soon- just the usual two laps and exercises. We'll run shuttles for a bit. Ken, I'll be shooting on you; Chuuhachi is still out sick." Ken nodded and Moriguchi swept the room with a glance and a wide smile. "Ready? Let's kick some ball!"

    His words were followed by whoops and howls of agreement and the players scrambled to their feet, adjusting the last bits of their uniform before dashing from the room. Hide grabbed Ken's elbow as he was tugging on his gloves and yanked him along with them. The shouts echoed off the walls of the tunnel as they ran. They burst into the sunlight of the field to a roar of approval from the already seated spectators.

    It was lucky for Ken that Hide released him then. Ken came to a dead halt right at the edge of the field, tilting his head back to stare upwards at the stadium. Yesterday it had given him an exciting sort of heebie-jeebies just to be in the huge stadium and imagine it packed. Today he was seeing it as he had envisioned. It was as if the dark and terrible years of being an assassin had melted away, and he had never left the fields at all.

    ~Maybe I am dead,~ Ken considered, but there was an awed sort of edge to his mental whisper, ~and this is heaven. This is the perfect afterlife, Schuldich...How could you call it mundane?~

    His blood was singing in his veins; his entire soul was crying out with a raw fire. Someone who had been separated from the love of his life for several nightmarish years had finally been returned to where he belonged. He took a deep breath, then stepped forward onto the grass.


    Ken remained where he was, listening to the roar of the crowd on his ears. He had never heard it so loud; had never _felt_ it beating into his veins like it was now. He could do nothing but stand there in front of his goal and stare up at the crowd. Every last person was on his or her feet, leaping up and down. The game was over; it had been a shut-out of 7-0. Not that the other team hadn't tried...but Ken's team was just better.

    To slip back into the role of goalkeeper had been easier than he had expected. At the beginning he had been nervous, thinking perhaps he would have forgotten something or something would have changed in the years since he had played. But no. One could not forget something that had been ingrained so deeply into them. Ken had not forgotten. He had ruled the goal and the defense line, yelling without hesitation so the players would take notice of what they would not have been able to see on their own.

    His team was clumped in the middle of field, grabbing a few moments to rejoice before they would go congratulate and thank their fallen opponents for their efforts. Ken was content to watch them as they slapped each other on the backs. He could hear their jubilant voices even if he could not make out the words.

    Oh, to do something that one loved so deeply...

    He would never forget this opportunity to play again. He reached out, rapping his knuckles on the nearest goal post before stepping out across the field. Hide and Miho ran to meet him and he returned their ecstatic hugs, more than willing to lose himself in their shared joy and love of the sport. When was the last time he had been surrounded by people who had been allowed to live their dream? It was an infectious, all-consuming warmth, and he laughed with them as they ran to tag onto the end of the line that was making its way towards the Wings.

    "Good game, good game, good game..." Such a familiar little mantra.

    His teammates dragged him down the hall back to the locker room, laughing and talking animatedly the whole time it took them to change. The rest of the team filtered in and the air was a mess of cheerful voices. Ken was snapping his pants closed over his shorts when Moriguchi's voice rose over the happy din:

    "Who's up for dinner tonight?" he shouted. "It's on Crawford; we can have whatever we want!"

    "Team dinner at the steak house!" Aida yelled, and there were several shouts of agreement at the proposal.

    Ken hesitated, balking at the idea of such a way to finish off the day. He didn't want it to end that way. He had too much energy; he felt too alive. There was too much adrenaline rushing through his veins to imagine going to a steak house now, eating, and returning home. But how could he protest when the others were so delighted by the American's generous offer? He stifled his disappointment and finished peeling his shin guards off.

    Crawford and Schuldich entered then; Ken caught the flash of orange in his peripheral vision. Moriguchi laughed and reported the team's approval to their manager, at which Crawford handed the captain what appeared to be a credit card. Moriguchi brandished it to the room and there was another round of cheering.

    "How about Fukkoku's?" Moriguchi asked, waving his arms for quiet in hopes of getting a vote.

    "Nakao's has prettier waitresses!" someone offered up in the back, and there was another loud round of approval. Moriguchi laughed; Crawford shook his head with the faintest hint of resigned amusement in his eyes.

    It was decided, then, Ken mused. He tugged the zipper to his bag shut and raked a hand through his hair, glancing around to make sure he had grabbed everything they needed. Well...Maybe the dinner wouldn't be that bad.

    /We don't have to go, you know,/ Schuldich offered. Ken looked up, meeting Schuldich's eyes curiously. /No one says that the whole team has to go to any of the celebrations. We can find something else if you'd rather burn your energy elsewhere./

    ~Can we?~ Ken sent back hopefully, rising to his feet and slinging his duffel bag over his shoulder.

    "I like Reichi the best of the serving girls," Hide announced to the room at large. There were several agreeing nods. Hide tilted his head to one side, sending a wink up to Ken. "I'd ask you who you liked the best, Ken, but I don't think you'd give me an honest answer with Schuldich in the same room."

    "As it is," Schuldich said, crossing the room and threading an arm through Ken's, "we're going to decline the dinner offer in hopes of better entertainment."

    "Beh! Keep the details to yourself!" Kou made a face.

    Schuldich laughed and Ken felt himself flushing. ~Schuldich!!~

    /Nein,/ Schuldich assured him, guiding him towards the door. /I'm just going to take you out, that's all./

    ~Where to?~ Ken asked curiously, trying to ignore the way Crawford's gaze lingered on him as they passed the American. Jeez, that man could do wonders to unnerve him. It was ironic that the one he'd originally viewed as the least dangerous of Schwarz was now the one that bothered him the most. Crawford didn't even have to say anything or look frightening. He just had to look at Ken with those eyes that bordered somewhere between assessing and disapproving.

    He could breathe easier when they were out of the locker room and had left the precognitive behind. If Ken had thought Schuldich would release him once they were out of sight of the soccer team, the German failed to follow through his expectations. They made their way towards the car. The crowd was cheering as they saw him, all waving and shouting congratulations and hellos. There was seven foot radius around them, however, that no one stepped into.

    /Telepathy comes in handy in crowds like this,/ Schuldich said in response to that observation. /It doesn't even occur to them to come closer./

    Ken climbed into his seat, shoving the duffel bag over the back of his chair so it sat on the back seat. He was buckling when Schuldich slid into place. The German glanced over his shoulder briefly as he turned the key in the ignition, and a path slowly cleared so the car could inch its way from its parking spot and turn towards the main street.

    "Buckle, Schuldich."

    "Persistant, aren't you?"

    Ken reached over, grabbing onto the wheel. His companion obediently clicked his buckle into place and then they were out of the parking lot and on the main street. Schuldich wove easily through the traffic. "So where are we going?" Ken asked again.

    "You said you had energy to work off."


    Schuldich cracked a grin at him. "So we're going dancing."

    "Dancing?" Ken repeated, startled. "Schuldich, I don't dance. That's Yohji's specialty...He's more the type to go clubbing and such, not me."

    "First time for everything."

    "But Schuldich, I don't know how! I'll look like an idiot."

    "You will not," Schuldich answered simply.

    "Schuldich, isn't there something else we could do?"

    "What's wrong with this?" The German asked, looking over at him. "It's a good way to work the energy out of your system. Not my number one choice, of course," and the flick of Schuldich's gaze up and down the athlete's form told him exactly what number one was, "but still enjoyable. Try everything once. If you're worried about people seeing you, why? When you return to your reality, none of your friends are going to know that you danced. You could do whatever you wanted...They'd never hear of it."

    Ken opened his mouth to retort, but no words came. Soundlessly, he closed it again and turned to gaze out the window.

    "This is your chance to live a little, Ken," Schuldich pressed. "Don't pass it up."

    "Mmf," Ken answered, not sure what else he could say.

    "Tell you what. We'll just stay for ten minutes, and if you're not impressed, we'll go. How's that?"

    Ken hesitated, looking over at Schuldich. The German did seem to want to go. How much could ten minutes hurt? And it was true...His friends would never know that he'd gone to a club. He folded his arms over his chest, looking back out his window once more as he turned Schuldich's words over in his mind. "This is your chance to live a little"...It was. This was a break from the insanity, a break that would help him get his feet planted once more so he would be able to face the darkness when things returned to how they should be. He should take advantage of this.

    "All right," he agreed. "Let's go."

    Schuldich's lips curved into a satisfied grin. "Let's."

    It was a short trip; Schuldich parked the car in a small lot and led Ken down the sidewalk. About half a block down they stopped in front of a dark, plain looking building. Ken studied it with faint surprise; a mission had brought them to clubs a few times before and he had passed several. None looked so plain and desolate as this one. Was this really a club or was Schuldich lost?

    If Schuldich heard his doubts- and there was no way Ken could imagine that he couldn't- he said nothing in response. Ken followed him through the first door and found himself facing a tall man and a second door. The man merely glanced at them before turning bored eyes towards the exit. Ken eyed him warily; the man had a scrawny build, but Ken had faced enough opponents that he knew this man would be hard to take down.

    Then Schuldich pushed open the second door, and any doubts Ken had about this place being a club vanished as a wave of music swept out to meet them, the bass rolling over his skin. Schuldich tugged him inside and closed the door behind them. They stayed just inside the entrance for a while so Ken could look around the place. The music was loud, but not obscenely so. The bass was a heartbeat without being a hammer to the soul. Most of the lighting was dim, with a few bright bulbs positioned in select places to cast more shadows on the dancers. The place had a clean atmosphere to it without coming across as antiseptic, and while the people dancing were dressed for fun, none of them were wearing the sorts of clothing Yohji and his dates tended to lean towards.

    It was decently crowded, and Ken couldn't help but wonder about that. The place didn't even look like a club.

    /That's the point,/ Schuldich said, sending the message mentally so it could be heard. /A lot of places in this area are run down and druggie holes...This is a balance and escape. Friends hear about it from friends, but only the right type are told. No one here wants to jeopardize what they have, not with some new regulations cracking down on several spots of the nightlife. They took great pains to disguise the outside and soundproof the inner walls./

    Ken thought this over, then nodded. Schuldich took that to be Ken's approval of the place and tugged him towards the dancing floor. /We're not exactly dressed for dancing,/ he said, amused, /but I doubt either of us cares, hm?/

    "N-no, not really," Ken answered, feeling his nervousness reappear as they approached the dancers.

    /There's nothing to it,/ Schuldich told him, easing Ken into the crowd. /Just let the music carry you. It comes naturally./

    "They said that about kissing, too," Ken muttered.

    He didn't mean for the German to pick up the dry remark, but the way Schuldich's eyebrows rose in surprise showed he had been heard. An amused grin danced on Schuldich's lips. /Oh? And who have you been kissing, lover-boy? Should I get jealous?/

    ~Just a girl,~ Ken hedged.


    ~You're being nosy,~ Ken chided him, uncomfortable with the German plucking through his mind for answers. He looked around the dancers. ~I'm not sure about this, Schuldich...~

    Schuldich studied him for a moment, then gave a slight nod and began pulling Ken through the crowd, weaving through the writhing bodies with not a little difficulty. When they safely emerged from the clump they found themselves facing the bar. A few people rested on the stools, but it was obvious that most everyone who had come had journeyed here to dance- not to drink. The bartender came over to help them instantly.

    "Schuldich," he said, raising his voice to be heard, "it's been a while."

    Schuldich gave a faint shrug and a smirk. "Things have been busy."

    "That art show, huh?" The bartender gave a nod, smiling and gesturing towards the wall behind them. "Then I suppose you haven't had time to finish the other portrait for me?" he asked, a wistful edge to his words.

    Ken glanced towards the wall the man was waving at. A few pictures hung, evenly spaced. The style definitely was Schuldich's; no one else could have painted with such a pure skill. "It's done," Schuldich told him, "but coming here was a last minute decision, so I didn't think to stop by the apartment and get it. I can drop it by tomorrow."

    The man beamed. "Your talents are very much appreciated. Everyone asks me where I bought my paintings from and how I can afford portraits done by an obvious master. They love your work, Schuldich, and your show will prove that to you." Schuldich merely shrugged, and the bartender wagged a finger at Ken. "Don't let him back out of it after we finally got him to do it, you hear?"

    Ken blinked, opening his mouth to ask why the man would think Schuldich would even consider it, but Schuldich bapped him on the nose. "I don't suppose we can collect payment for the portrait early?"

    "No problem at all," the man assured him. "Never for you, Schuldich. What will it be?"

    "Something to lighten Ken up, not too sweet."

    "And the usual for you?"

    "Ja," Schuldich answered, and the bartender scurried away to mix the drinks. Schuldich turned a smirk on Ken. "He'll know just what you need," he assured Ken. "Then you can relax a bit and stop worrying so much about what people are going to think."

    "Mm," Ken agreed reluctantly when the bartender arrived with their drinks. He eyed his own a bit apprehensively for a moment, wondering at the size of the cup- it was huge! He picked up the glass, holding it so the light could spill through it. It was a pretty shade of blue. Schuldich was sipping at his own drink, and both of the other men were watching Ken. A little embarrassed by the scrutiny, Ken lowered the glass to his lips and took a tentative sip.

    On first swallow, it was flavorless. The aftertaste, however, was smooth and cool, almost berry but not quite. He took a larger sip, enjoying the way it turned warm as it ran down his throat to his stomach. "It's good," he said, when he realized the two were waiting for his yay or nay. The bartender gave a nod, apparently pleased by picking the correct drink, then bid them farewell and went to tend to a woman.

    "If you want refills, just bring your cup back up here. He knows you're with me, so he'll be more than happy to give you what you want on the house," Shuldich told him.

    "Because you're painting things for him?" Ken asked, taking another large gulp. It was more like drinking juice than an alcoholic beverage, even though he knew it had to be the latter.

    Schuldich glanced towards the wall, blue eyes raking along the portraits. "Yeah."

    "Who are they?" Ken asked, joining Ken in studying the paintings.

    "They're his children. They passed away two years ago in a club riot. It's one of the reasons he made this place; he wants other teenagers and young adults to have a safe place to come and have fun."

    "How sad..." Ken murmured. Three smiling faces gazed back at him from one of the paintings as three girls in their late teens leaned against each other and a rickety looking wooden railing. Two were fighting over a frisbee- but judging by the laughter their faces had frozen in, it was a playful fight. The third had ice cream and had her head tilted back as she gazed at the sky. Behind them stretched a beach, with the ocean surf crashing against it. Several feet down from that portrait was one of two of the girls sitting on a blanket with their backs resting together. One was reading and the other was napping, her arms loosely folded across her middle. They were at the same beach. "The beach..." Ken murmured, turning to Schuldich. "You painted another beach picture."

    "The third daughter again," Schuldich confirmed his guess. "Mitsuke's happiest memories with them were his trips with them to the beach, and that's what he wanted: a happy memory to gaze at and work under."

    Ken sipped at his drink, tilting his head to one side in consideration. "You're a nice person," he declared.

    Schuldich sent him an affronted look. "Don't say such things; you'll ruin my reputation."

    Ken laughed, thoroughly enjoying the warmth that had now spread through his limbs. He set his cup down on the counter, running a fingertip along the rim. Most of it was gone, but he reassured himself that Schuldich had said he could have more. "What's so wrong with saying you're a nice person?" he queried. "I mean, you're painting these things for him."

    "They're not free."

    "You get paid in alcohol."

    "As if you have any complaints," Schuldich said dryly, glancing towards Ken's cup. "Thirsty?"

    "It's good." Ken shrugged. "It's pretty." He eyed the cup. "It's the same color as your eyes," he observed.

    "I think you have definitely had enough that you'll enjoy the dance floor now." Schuldich set his own cup down and closed his fingers around Ken's wrist, leading him easily back to the dancers. "Dancing _is_ natural...Humans just make it difficult because of their inhibitions. We tend to do that with things, though the reasons for such guards are countless. You strike those away, and the freedom that results is always worth whatever trouble it takes to knock them down."

    "Always?" Ken repeated.

    Schuldich thought about it, then conceded: "Usually."

    "Huh." Ken grinned. "Is this one of those times?" he asked.

    Schuldich mirrored the expression. "With Ken, it generally is."

    "Good." There wasn't anything really that funny, but Ken couldn't stop grinning. It was warm in here, but not unpleasantly so. It was just a nice addition to boost the energy he still had running through his veins, a buzzy tingly sensation. He couldn't really feel his fingertips, but that didn't matter.

    "You did finish your drink off pretty quick," Schuldich pointed out, drawing the younger boy closer against him. There was barely a breath of air between their bodies, and the closeness of the older man only served to add to the warmth that swirled through Ken's blood. Hands cupped Ken's hips, guiding the teenager in the dance. "It was pretty well laced with alcohol."

    "Is that why the floor isn't lying straight?" Ken asked, lacing an arm around Schuldich's neck to help keep his balance.

    "Ja." Schuldich sounded amused. Orange hair spilled across Ken's shoulders and one hand snaked to rest at the base of the athlete's spine. "That would be it, Ken."

    "Makes sense," Ken murmured, the words escaping on a soft sigh. He let his head droop forward, resting his forehead on Schuldich's shoulder because he didn't have the energy to hold it up himself. He dimly remembered having energy just a few moments ago, but it had all vanished. "Makes sense," he said again, allowing himself to relax in the warmth of his partner's embrace.

    Later he would remember being lifted and carried out. The whisper of wind against his face would be a dim memory, not as strong as the satisfaction of sinking into a soft mattress. In the morning these vague images would remain of the night, and what would fade into the echoes of his memory would be the brush of another's lips against his own.

Part 5