Part Eight

    Ken smiled to himself as he raised his glass of juice to his lips, watching Schuldich as the German moved back and forth through the sunroom that had been selected for the art show. Despite what Yohji had said yesterday about sleeping in, the model had been the one to answer the door when they showed up at eight fifteen and had griped good-naturedly about them being late. He had sent both to get juice and to help themselves to the fruit in the kitchen while he informed Crawford that the two had arrived, and all four of them had carried Schuldich's paintings in from the car. Now the lanky blonde and the artist were arguing about where each portrait was going to be hung, and Ken was content to watch their bickering from his spot near the door.

    "Here," Yohji was saying stubbornly, holding a portrait up to the wall with one hand and holding out the other in an imperious demand for a hook to hang it with.

    "No, you 'tard," Schuldich said back, moving the box of hooks out of his companion's reach and gesturing to the spot beside the one Yohji had selected. "The cats are going here. I don't want those two to go together."

    "Look, the paint matches these curtains and has good sunlight." Yohji grabbed for the hooks and Schuldich promptly smacked his hand away. "Ouch!"

    "It's not going there." Schuldich plucked the painting out of Yohji's hands and marched to another side of the room. Yohji grinned as he watched the artist go and went to the next painting in the stack.

    "Hey…" Yohji sounded surprised as he lifted the canvas. "This one's not going up, is it?" he asked. He glanced towards Ken, then over at Schuldich. The German was pressing the sticky side of his hook against the wall and didn't look back. He did not answer either, instead hanging his picture and taking a step back to make sure it was settled to his satisfaction. Yohji took the hint and looked around with a critical eye, studying the blank spots left on the wall. Finally he looked towards Ken, holding out the canvas in offering. "Have any preferences?" he asked. "It's you, after all."

    "Me?" Ken asked blankly. When Yohji nodded, he moved towards the model to inspect the canvas in question. Yohji tilted the portrait so Ken could get a better look as he drew near. The athlete found himself gazing at himself, curled up on a window seat. He had forgotten about this one…He studied the expression of the man in the picture, brown eyes lingering on a face that spoke of a soul torn between what it refused to give up and what it longed to have.

    The picture- the face of someone who had admired what he had found here but ached to return to where he belonged. It had been painted just a few days ago but so much had changed- so very much. Then he had been lost in a world that was so utterly not his, an alien place with strangers wearing his friends’ faces. He had slowly learned the people behind the reflections of his teammates and had liked what he had found. They were so utterly different, but not so far removed that he could not make connections between them. He liked the people here, liked the people he thought he would hate because they were different from what he had known.

    He had stepped into a world with a perfect life set out for him. Soccer, clean hands, kind friends with easy hearts…

    And Schuldich.

    For the first time since he was a young child, Ken had drifted to sleep tucked inside someone else’s embrace. Schuldich’s arms around him had been a comfortable weight, a warmth that felt so _right_. It was the first time in a long time Ken had felt so safe, had felt so very much like he belonged. He had fallen asleep against the older man, Schuldich’s heartbeat the most soothing lullaby he had ever heard.

    There had been no guilt in taking comfort in Schuldich’s presence when the artist was attached to someone else, because Ken’s concern for and opinion of the Ken he had replaced had done an abrupt U turn straight down the toilet. He didn’t give a damn what happened to the other man. He loathed him for what he had done to Schuldich, for the way he had treated the German. He didn’t care if the other Ken thought he had some hold over Schuldich- he loved the German, and Schuldich felt very strongly for him.

    That in itself was frightening. It was a glorious, terrifying thing to know he was in love. He had never felt so strongly for anyone or about anything before. This beat Yuriko, this beat soccer, this beat the care and concern he felt for his teammates. There was a difference in sacrifice between his teammates and Schuldich…On a mission he would do everything he could to prevent the death of his partners and anything possible to avenge them if such a horrible thing happened. With Schuldich, he would lay his life down just to keep the man from getting scratched. He knew that- he could feel it. It was a tension in his veins, a need to protect this other man. It was the brilliance of a sunrise after weeks of thunderstorms to see Schuldich smile at just him, a dizzying joy to see Schuldich pleased or having a good time. It was feeling his breath catch in his throat when Schuldich looked at him or reached out to touch his face. It was the nervous impatience for Schuldich to return to him when he disappeared from the room, no matter how short the absence.

    It was unlike anything Ken had felt before, and words could never do it justice.

    His drive to return to his world had evaporated. There was nothing waiting for him there that could come close to this feeling for Schuldich. He could not make himself seriously consider the mirror, not after last night’s words, not after falling asleep in Schuldich’s arms. He struggled not to feel guilty- certainly not for the other Ken’s fate, but for his friends who had been suddenly landed with a very different version of himself…for his friends who had just found themselves down a man on their missions. A part of him wanted to feel guilty for this abandonment of them, but the rest of him couldn’t take it seriously, not when he could turn around and see Schuldich across the room.

    The best thing to do was to not think about what his stay here had done to his team on the other side of the mirror. A distant part of his mind chided him for not thinking about it, but he doubted the voice would be hard to drown out. He could think about them later. For now, he deserved to be happy, right?

    ~And they deserve to be safe.~

    He looked away from the portrait, taking the last sip of his juice to wet his suddenly dry throat. Yohji was studying him in patient silence, waiting for a response. "I don't know," he answered finally. "Schuldich would just argue with my opinion anyway, wouldn't he?"

    "That's what he loves to do best," Yohji agreed, sending an amused look in Schuldich's direction. Ken found his gaze drawn to the German as well. The artist was still beside the painting he had hung, but had turned to face them. A grin twitched on his lips, almost enough to melt away the troubled feeling that poked at Ken’s heart from seeing the portrait. Almost, but not quite enough- because there was a bit of wary edge to Schuldich’s grin that Ken guessed was in reaction to his torn thoughts. Brown and blue caught and held. It was Ken that turned away first.

    "Don't put it up," Schuldich said finally. "I'll take it back out to the car later."

    "All right, then." Yohji set it down and moved on to the next one.

    "I'll put my cup in the dishwasher…" Ken offered as a farewell, moving towards the door.

    He considered himself quite unlucky when he stepped into the doorway of the kitchen, for Crawford was inside filling his mug from the coffee pot. He had no desire to be alone with the American. Even though he considered the oracle's antagonism towards him justified now that he knew the whole story behind Schuldich and the other Ken, that didn't mean he liked to be the brunt of Crawford's dislike. The distant gratitude that Crawford was just looking out for his friend's well-being was overridden by the fact that such protection was at Ken's expense.

    He was debating whether or not to duck out of the kitchen and wait until the older man left when Crawford turned. A cool honey-brown gaze raked Ken's face. Gathering his courage, Ken stepped inside. He favored Crawford with a brief look, acknowledging his presence, and passed the man on the way to the dishwasher. Crawford said nothing as he put his glass inside, and Ken passed him once more on his way out. As he approached the doorway, he allowed himself some relief that he had survived the encounter.

    The relief was short lived, for Crawford chose that moment to speak up.

    "I do not know what you are trying to do today," the foreigner said. Ken stopped in his tracks but did not turn. "I do not know for what reasons you are finally backing Schuldich's decision to grow as an artist. What I do know is that today is a very big day for him." Here Ken half-turned to meet the other man's cold gaze. Crawford reached up, pushing his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. His voice had a hard edge to it, and every word he spoke was a warning and a threat. "If this is another one of your games, I suggest you abort it now, or you will not like the consequences. I am through watching you play around with him. If you ruin this for him, you will regret it for the rest of your life."

    Ken said nothing for a long moment, squishing the reactionary twinge of anger that Crawford was threatening him, that Crawford thought he would do anything to destroy Schuldich's happiness. It took a bit of struggle to push that aside and reason that Crawford might have every right to suspect him of foul play, if the other Ken had a history of playing 'games' with the German. That logic did nothing to help him; it just made him angrier with the other Ken.

    Something must have shown on his face, for Crawford's eyes narrowed. "This is not a game," Ken said finally.

    Crawford did not believe him; Ken could tell by the look on his face. He did not feel like he could argue with the other man further, however. People said that actions spoke louder than words, so perhaps if Crawford watched him today it would convince him of Ken's good intentions more than an argument would. Then again, Ken wondered if a day could undo what Schuldich had called 'a year and a half of living with the consequences'. Somehow he doubted it.

    Schuldich swept into the kitchen as Ken started once more towards the doorway. The German stopped him, ducking down to give him a quick kiss. It effectively melted away Ken's lingering anger and resentment towards both Crawford and Ken-other, and Ken found a faint smile curling his lips when the German pulled back and wandered to the basket of fruit on the table. "I'm starving," he announced, rooting through the fruits. "Isn't it time for breakfast?"

    "Nagi and Farfarello are not awake yet," Crawford answered simply.

    "They will be in a moment…" Schuldich muttered, eyes unfocusing slightly as he searched for his companions’ minds.

    "Let them sleep."

    Schuldich rolled his eyes, plucking up a banana and working at peeling it. "When I have to resort to eating myself, I'm holding you accountable, Crawford." The banana was gone in four bites, much to Ken's amusement, and the artist sent the peels flying towards the garbage can. Crawford neatly intercepted the toss when it was obvious it was going to go right past the trash and altered its course. The American glanced towards Ken, who ignored him in favor of watching the artist rummage through the fruit bowl.

    "I told you to eat something before we left," Ken reminded the older man. His lips were tingling from the peck Schuldich had given him and he debated whether to be pleased with the kiss or embarrassed that Schuldich had kissed him in front of an audience. On the one hand, he was a bit uncomfortable. His relationship with Yuriko had been a private thing, kept far from the shop, the smell of blood, and the nosy eyes of his teammates. On the other hand, he didn't really give a damn what Crawford thought when he saw the two kiss, because it felt so _right_ to be kissed by Schuldich.

    /So are you for it or against it?/ Schuldich sounded amused.

    Ken considered this. ~I don't know. Try again and we'll see.~

    Schuldich laughed at that, chucking aside the apple he had been examining to approach Ken. The athlete tried to ignore the cool gold-brown eyes that were watching him as Schuldich closed the distance between them, reaching up to tangle his fingers in Schuldich's hair to pull the German's face closer. A pleasant warmth spread from their lips through Ken's blood, thrumming with pleasure as he allowed Schuldich to explore his mouth. Ken grinned as Schuldich pulled back, a half-dopey and half-amused expression.

    "You taste like bananas," he announced. A laugh rippled along the edge of his words, just barely kept back. When Schuldich kissed him, reality faded. For those precious moments, Ken could forget about a cursed mirror and the bugnuks waiting for him back home. He could forget that he was in someone else's place and life and just revel in the fact that Schuldich was kissing _him_. He could lose himself in the German's smiles and gaze and tell himself for just a few moments that things were perfect. The euphoria such a delusion lent him made him want to laugh and shout to the whole world that he knew what it was to belong and to be cared for.

    Schuldich rolled his eyes, but he was grinning back at the brunette. "You're so _picky_," he sighed.

    "Who's picky?" Ken retorted, tugging lightly on the orange tresses still wrapped in his fingers as he trailed behind the artist out. It wasn't until they were out of the room that he remembered Crawford was still in the kitchen. "You've hung six portraits in the hour we've been here."

    "They have to be hung just right."

    Ken grinned and gave a small shake of his head. "Yes, they do, but keep in mind that the art show starts in about an hour and a half and you still have thirty-one portraits to hang." Schuldich made a face at the reminder. Ken released his hair. “Nervous?” he asked softly.

    "I'm never nervous," Schuldich retorted, sending Ken a mock- condescending look over his shoulder.

    "Oh?" Ken asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

    "Scared shitless is another story," Schuldich explained.

    Ken laughed, taking another step to draw even with his companion. They had to pass the stairs to get to the sunroom. Nagi was standing at the base of the stairwell and Farfarello was sitting a few steps up. The Irishman was dressed in a pair of pajama pants, his chest bare. Ken found his eyes tracing the teenager's skin curiously, eyes studying the scars that ran over the lean frame. His exploration was interrupted when Schuldich lifted a hand in greeting to the two.

    "Good morning, sunshine," the German sent at Nagi, and Ken turned his attention to the boy.

    The normally unruffled brunette was looking decidedly grumpy. His hair was messy from sleep and he was rubbing at one eye, giving Schuldich a death glare out of the other. "Do you have any clue what time it is, Schuldich?" he asked.

    The German checked his watch. "Nine thirty-two."

    "Remind me why I'm awake before ten thirty on a Sunday morning. The one day I'm allowed to sleep in as late as I want, you wake me up."

    "I'm starving and I had to wait on _you_ to eat. You wouldn't just let me waste away of hunger, would you?" Schuldich asked.

    Nagi muttered something rude. Ken made a mental note that the boy was most definitely not a morning person. He couldn’t help but be amused. Nagi stalked past them- presumably on his way to the kitchen- his slippers tacking quietly across the polished wooden floor as he went. His exit left Ken and Schuldich alone with Farfarello, and Ken turned his eyes back on the other teenager. The last time the three of them had been alone was when the two had fought over Ken.

    Now the two friends studied each other in silence. Farfarello turned his gaze on Ken after a few moments. At length he rose from his spot. "You told him," he said simply.

    "Everything," Schuldich confirmed.

    Farfarello descended the stairs and paused at the bottom, his single golden eye holding Schuldich's gaze easily as he approached them. "It was your decision to make."

    Schuldich gave a heavy sigh. "You're the only one, Farfarello, that can make an apology sound so much like a death sentence."

    Schuldich's words amused the Irishman; Ken blinked in surprise when he saw the albino's mouth twitch in a ghost of a smile. Ken had seen Farfarello smile only once before, and it had been an insane, malicious expression that had twisted his whole face. This smile, as brief and faint as it was, made him actually look his age. The man's pale features and scarred face did wonders to make him look older than he was.

    "Are you going to go placate the rugrat?" Schuldich asked with a gesture over his shoulder.

    "That is Crawford's job," Farfarello answered, falling even with them.

    Ken wondered at that; he thought the Irishman would have chosen to follow Nagi. After all, it seemed like there was something between the two of them.

    /Nagi feels for Farfarello,/ Schuldich explained as the three started towards the sunroom once more. /He's not quite sure what it is. It's stronger than affection for a friend and slightly different than affection for kin. Farfarello knows this, but he looks at Nagi as little more that perhaps a younger brother, or a friend attached to a friend perhaps. He is very hesitant about getting to really know anyone, and a part of him won't allow him to do so. Nagi knows this. He also knows that he's the second closest to Farfarello, and he is satisfied with that. In time he'll be able to sort things out for himself./

    ~And you're the closest one to him,~ Ken mused. ~From what I have seen, Schuldich, I believe that you are the center knot that keeps these people connected. Congratulations…You are the heart of the group.~ Ken sent him a small smile.

    /Beh./ Schuldich rolled his eyes at the words, dismissing them.

    When they entered the sunroom, all of the pictures were hung. Yohji was sprawled lazily on his stomach by an open window that stretched from floor to ceiling, smoking. He looked up at their entrance and lifted the cigarette in greeting. "Yo."

    Schuldich looked around the sunroom. "What have you done?"

    "I did what should have taken you ten minutes to do, yet was turning into a ten hour job," the model answered breezily.

    "You hung my pictures. You _rearranged_ them." Schuldich waved a hand around before jabbing his fingers accusingly at one. "I told you the cats were going there."

    "And I told you the cats didn't match the curtains."

    "Look, Martha Stewart…"

    Yohji stubbed his cigarette out on the grass outside the window. He flicked the butt carelessly into the bushes and pushed himself to his feet, tugging the window shut before turning to face them. "You were making things too complicated," he told the telepath. "Walk around the room and tell me if you truly disagree with where I've put your work." He raked his hair out of his face with long fingers. "And only disagree," he said, "if you really do. Don't argue with me for the sake of hearing your own voice."

    Schuldich flicked him the bird and started on a slow circuit of the room. Ken and Farfarello remained in the doorway, watching him go. Yohji crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the window frame, a smug smile curving his lips as he followed Schuldich's progress with his green eyes. Schuldich took his time, arms folded over his chest as he studied each of his portraits. When he finally reached the doorway again he gave an arrogant toss of his head.

    "Trash," he declared. "All trash and bad taste, but it'll have to do ."

    Yohji laughed. "A simple 'I was wrong and you were right, Yohji-sama' would suffice. You don't have to be so dramatic about it."

    "Kiss it, Kudou."

    Yohji waggled his eyebrows at Ken. "May I?"

    Ken frowned at him even though he knew the blonde was just teasing. "No."

    "Oh ho~ He's more territorial than I thought." Yohji grinned.

    Ken could feel someone's eyes on him and glanced to one side to find himself meeting Farfarello's gaze. The Irishman gave him an assessing look before turning away again. Schuldich stretched and looked around.

    "The show doesn't start until eleven. You've just left us with a lot of free time, Yohji."

    "I'll take your thanks in the form of monetary donations and flowers," Yohji replied breezily, clapping Schuldich on the shoulder as he slipped past the group on his way out of the room.

    "As if you need the money," Schuldich said dryly.

    "I can't help it if being so good looking makes you rich," the other man sent back.

    "Yeah, it's always beneficial to be pretty if you want to catch a wealthy bachelor's attention, you leech," Schuldich answered, and Yohji tossed a wolfish grin over his shoulder. Schuldich rolled his eyes as the model disappeared down the hall. "He's vain, that one."

    Ken heard Farfarello mutter "Pot and kettle" and grinned. Schuldich chose to ignore both of them.


    Vain or not, Yohji knew how to play host. The man swept through the crowd easily, a tray of drinks balanced on one hand. He stopped here to offer a glass of champagne, there to offer a compliment, and in the corner to give his opinion on the latest happenings. He smiled and flirted, praised and teased. The crowd reacted well to his easy handling of them, and Ken marveled at how Yohji in any reality was good with people. It was a natural talent.

    The room was packed with all sorts of people- truly packed. It was a steady flow into the sunroom and a slow trickle out; people kept arriving and were reluctant to leave. The crowd had spread from the sunroom to the den and one of the nearby offices. The air was full of a buzz of admiration for the paintings that adorned the wall, a cheerful hum broken often by a thrilled exclamation from one of the many new arrivals. Farfarello had vanished as soon as the room had first begun to fill, disliking the idea of being among so many people. The rest of the group of eight drifted in and out of the sunroom, making conversation with a few of the visitors, admiring once again the work their friend had done, and smiling to each other at the success of Schuldich's show.

    The star himself kept abandoning the room, both due to the lavish praise he was continually showered with and the mental noise such crowded quarters produced. Some people followed him out each time to speak with him about his talent, and Ken smiled to himself as he watched from a distance. Omi, pausing beside Ken one time to converse with him, identified the three that currently had the telepath occupied as three popular artists of the time. They were obviously impressed with Schuldich's talent, from the excited gesturing of their hands and the smiles on their faces.

    Ken loved watching Schuldich the most. He had changed, as had the rest of the group, into fine clothes for the occasion. Ken had advised him to wear the black suit he had worn just yesterday to Farfarello's performance, so Schuldich was a stunning vision, a mix of fiery orange and jet black. Black was definitely Schuldich's color. It made Ken think of the man dancing, made him think of Schuldich's rapt expression as he lost himself in music and the heated kiss that had followed the song. Schuldich's expression was equally fascinating today. He had lost the playfully arrogant attitude he wore for his friends, knowing that it would not help him break into the artist's world. He seemed uncertain what to do with everyone's adoration of his work- he _knew_ he was good, but he had not had this reaction from such a large group before. Someone had even called in two newspapers to do an article on it, and the two photographers had been busy ever since taking pictures of the crowd and pestering both the guests and the artist about his work. Ken knew Schuldich loved the attention, loved the acceptance and the love, but was also equally flustered by it. It was both endearing and amusing to watch Schuldich handle it.

    That was the other Ken's fault, Ken knew. If Schuldich had been wrapped so deeply in the other Ken, it would have been too easy for the other man to rip away at Schuldich's confidence in his own skill.

    The bidding would start soon for Schuldich's pieces. Crawford was going to handle that part of the show. Ken smiled to himself. Once word spread like wildfire of Schuldich's skill, the future selling of his pieces would be amazing to witness. He was sure that some other artists had made explosive entries into their field, but Schuldich was something different.

    Schuldich took from people exactly what they wanted. He captured both the image and the tone of thought that accompanied it. By having people explain what they wanted, by listening to their thoughts and hearing how they referred to their request both mentally and verbally, he was able to get more than the shape and colors of the picture. He could get the emotions involved in the work, and Schuldich had the gift to put that into his paintings. They were more than just a replica of what people wanted; they conveyed what the person wanted to feel when looking at it. Schuldich poured himself into his pieces; he gave himself to it and let their thoughts be his thoughts to make the portrait perfect.

    He was very real, very pure, and those that saw his paintings reacted to that.

    Ken was distracted from his thoughts when he saw Ran exit the sunroom. A faint frown traced the older man's lips as he glanced around, looking for someone. He spotted Ken where the athlete was leaning against the wall and his frown deepened. He turned away and Ken allowed himself a moment of aggravated sympathy for the author. He was glad he now knew why Ran disliked him, and he believed it was as justified as Crawford's disgust.

    The other Ken must have mastered in screwing up people's lives. Ken wondered if they offered that major, then decided his counterpart was too young to have attended college anyway. Perhaps it was a natural talent, like Yohji's ability to handle the crowd.

    "Good afternoon, Ran," he called in greeting. Ran flicked him a glance, an acknowledgement, before turning away again. Ken gestured down the hall. "Omi went to the kitchen," he offered helpfully. "Yohji enlisted him and Nagi to make sandwich slices for Schuldich's guests, since it's past lunch time."

    Ran hesitated, then glanced at him once more. Ken smiled at him, trying to speak with the expression. ~Look,~ he thought, even though he knew the author was no telepath. ~I'm not interested in you as anything other than a friend. Go find Omi and be happy with him.~

    Ran didn't understand; perhaps the smile was too cheery and innocent for his expectations. Ken turned his attention elsewhere, dismissing the redhead in favor of finding Schuldich again. The older man lingered just a moment more before disappearing down the hall in search of his boyfriend.

    Schuldich had managed to disentangle himself from his newest clump of admirers only to be approached by a girl with dark blue hair cut to her shoulders. She called a cheerful greeting, diving into the German so that he had to catch her in an embrace. "Schuldich!"

    "My, my, what a surprise," Schuldich said, setting her back down on her feet. She was beaming up at him. "You certainly came a long way."

    She flicked hair out of her face. "It's not long when I came for a good reason," she answered, looping her arm through his and turning him with her. Now they were facing Ken. He frowned faintly as he studied her. She looked very familiar. He had seen her before, but he didn't know where. " You've got an amazing turnout," she complimented Schuldich. "I told all my friends to come- managed to pack some of them in the car with me. Rika's already called back to tell her boyfriend that he should have come. And I brought food, too! I need help carrying it to the kitchen, though; the three of us can't carry it in by ourselves. We made onigiri, tempura, salad, noodles, teriyaki…" She screwed her face up in thought.

    Schuldich made a face, a sort of pained grimace. "Aya…"

    Ken stared. Aya? Ran's sister? She looked different with such short hair- and she had never worn that much make-up in his original reality. She was also a bit more bubbly here than there. The one time Ran had allowed his team to meet his sister, she had been quiet if friendly.

    "Yes, Schuldich?" she asked brightly.

    "Does your brother know you're here?"

    "Not yet! You know he hates it when I drive here. He doesn't trust me on the roads."

    "That might be because you drive like a bat out of hell. Traffic laws are made for a reason."

    Schuldich was a hypocrite, Ken decided absently.

    "You sound like Ran when you talk like that." Aya made a face. When Schuldich raised an eyebrow at her she sighed and shrugged, releasing his arm. "I know he's just worried about me, but still…" She looked around. "Where is he, anyway? Rika brought a copy of his book because I told her he'd be here. She's dying for his autograph. She's a history major, so she finds everything he writes to be fascinating." She gave a wry smile.

    A history major? Ken blinked. That was right…Schuldich had said Ran was both a historian and an author. Ken had forgotten. Well…That scratched out the possibility of Ken reading any of his works. History was very boring.

    Aya noticed him then and waved, running across the room to greet him. "Kennnn! It's been so long!"

    Ken was sent stumbling backwards from her hug and had to laugh at her enthusiasm. "Hey, Aya," he greeted. The Ran from the flower shop would murder him if he even looked at Aya for too long, much less touched her. The boy was too protective of his sister; Ken knew that Ran kept her away from the team as much because his teammates were single males as because of their nightly profession.

    Aya turned a bright-eyed look on him. "Ne, Ken, you're so strong, you want to help me unload the car?"

    "Eh…Sure." Ken smiled and saw Schuldich grin from his spot halfway across the room.

    "Yay~ Come on!" She grabbed his hand and started for the front door. Ken was helpless to do anything but hurry to keep up. For such a small girl, she could move fast. Yohji had once declared that energy capacity was inversely proportional to the size of a person, and had used this to explain why little children could keep going for hours. It had been a defensive remark when his teammates had teased him about getting slow in his old age; he had said that it was his impressive height that made him tire quicker than his teammates. Ken had told him he was full of it, and Yohji had turned the hose on him. The other two had followed, and Ken still remembered the look on Ran's face when he had received the surprise dousing.

    His teammates were crazy like that, he mused, smiling to himself.

    His teammates…The smile slowly faded.

    Lucky for him, he didn't have to think about them anymore, for they had just left the building and were scrambling towards Aya's car. It was a small vehicle, and it was very, very pink. Ken allowed himself a moment to gape before Aya got the back door open and started pulling out food. She hooked a cooler over each of his arms and began loading his hands with boxes. They were heavier than he expected them to be, and he braced himself against the side of the car as she began to rearrange the stack of boxes he was carrying.

    "You're not going to drop them, are you?" Aya asked him.

    "No, I'm not," he assured her.

    "Good." She dug another carton out and placed it on top of the stack.

    "Uh…Aya? I can't see anymore."

    "Does that mean you're going to drop them?" she asked, leaning over to peer around the boxes at him.

    "Probably." He started to shift his grip on the stack and stopped when the pile began to sway. "If I can't see where I'm going I could run into something."

    She sighed and took the top box off. "Better?" He nodded and smiled to himself as she leaned in the back seat, checking to make sure she had gotten everything. "Is there anything up front?"

    He glanced through the window beside him. There was something on the seat, a thick hardcover book. "Foreign Myths," the title read, and beneath it was Ran's name. Black ink made a rough sketch on the cover, a sword driven into the ground. A glove lay to either side of the blade, and jewels were sprinkled carelessly around them. In the background was a tall rectangle that outlined the entire image.

    "That's Ran's book?" he asked when Aya finally leaned away from the car. He noted that she was only carrying the one carton he had asked her to take back from his stack and tried to shift his grip on the increasingly heavy load he was carrying.

    "Yep!" She gestured for him to step away from the car and he did so. "I should bring it in," she said, tugging the door open and plucking it up. "It's his newest one…This is one of the first printings. Ran always gives me one of the first copies to give to my friend."

    This must be the book Ran had that book signing for, Ken decided. " Very nice," he told Aya.

    "It's not bad to be sister to a famous author," she told Ken, pushing the car door shut with a foot. They started towards the house, moving slowly so Ken wouldn't drop anything. "It's even better when he's friends with a lot of other famous people, like athletes and models and artists and musicians…" She grinned up at him. "I'm sure Omi and Nagi are destined to do great things. They have to be, because all eight of you have to be extremely special."

    "I'm sure they are, too," Ken agreed with her, sharing her grin. She got the door for him, but it was slow work easing through the doorway when the bulky coolers were hanging from his arms. He was sure he was going to drop something, and Aya's fretful eyes on him told him she was sure he was, too.

    Two hands suddenly lifted the top box from Ken's stack, the heaviest of the clump, and Ken found himself staring at Ran again. The redhead turned an accusing purple stare on Aya, who immediately ducked behind Ken.

    "That's your car in the driveway, Aya. Didn't I tell you not to drive if you came?"

    Aya sulked from her hiding spot. "I know the way here best of anyone, and you know I make a horrible passenger, 'niichan."

    Ken nodded at the box Ran had taken from him. "Thanks," he said gratefully.

    Ran glanced at him, taking in the way the athlete was loaded down. A tinge of resigned amusement colored his otherwise guarded gaze. "Aya…You will be the death of everyone."

    "You still love me, don't you, 'niichan?" Aya asked pitifully.

    Ran sighed. "Of course, Aya."

    "Good!" She bounced past Ken, holding out Ran's book. "Rika wants you to sign this. She wants more than your name, so I need you to give her some sort of encouragement for her career. She's going into history just like you did. I told her you would sign it because you love me so much. Right?"

    Ran just stared at her for a few moments before his shoulders slumped slightly- an obvious "I give up" gesture. "Of course, Aya," he said, the beginnings of a helpless smile touching his lips.

    Ken grinned. A whole new world and Aya still had her brother wrapped tightly around her finger. The redhead shook his head and turned away. " Let's get your food to the kitchen."

    "Yes!" Aya agreed enthusiastically.

    Schuldich was waiting in the kitchen when they arrived. He was leaning against the counter near where Nagi and Omi were finishing up filling platters with small triangles of sandwiches, a pair of chopsticks dangling from his lips. His eyes bounced from box to box when they entered and he followed them to the table, looking over Ken's shoulder as the cartons were arranged on the tabletop.

    "A bit expectant, are you?" Aya sounded amused.

    "Why are you so ready to eat?" Ken asked. "You don't even like Japanese food that much, remember?"

    Aya whirled on the artist, looking stricken. "You don't?" she cried.

    Schuldich looked as if he just found himself in the middle of a freeway with a semi bearing down on him. "I like it," he reassured her quickly, blue eyes wide. "You make it much better than I ever could, that's all, and I do the cooking at our place. It's hard to appreciate the taste of something when you can't make it right. But _your_ cooking!" He waggled his chopsticks at her. "There's a reason you're going into culinary arts."

    She eyed him doubtfully. "You sure it's all right? I could make something else…You never told me…"

    "No, no, no. Your cooking is wonderful. There's nothing wrong with it. I love it."

    She considered this for a moment before beaming and whirling to face her boxes again. "All right, then! What would you like to start with? Want a sample of everything?" She began prying lids open and listing what was in each. There was a quiet snicker from the other side of the kitchen, but Ken wasn't sure if it was from Omi or Nagi.

    /Thanks…/ Schuldich said dryly.

    ~I've never seen anyone backpedal so quickly,~ Ken said, highly amused.

    /Bite me./

    ~All right,~ Ken answered breezily. Schuldich sent him a half startled look before a grin pulled at the corner of his mouth.

    Aya poked Schuldich. "Ken may be Japanese but he does not count as a Japanese food. Stop devouring him with your eyes and eat my food."

    "You're as bossy as always," Schuldich told her, reaching over her shoulder to pluck some tempura from the nearest box.

    "Some things never change," she said cheerfully.

    Schuldich glanced towards Ken as he moved the chopsticks towards his mouth. "Some things do."


    "Whooo…" Yohji let himself collapse on the couch, uncaring that he allowed himself to drop rather heavily and ungracefully across Crawford's lap. The American grunted quietly at Yohji's sudden weight and the man grinned up at him from his sprawled position. "I'm beat," he announced. "I entertained the crowd. I vote someone else cleans up."

    "I nominate Nagi," Schuldich offered, lifting a hand from where it was resting on the couch cushion he was seated on.

    "Why am I not surprised?" Nagi asked from his spot beside Farfarello.

    "It could be a group thing!" Aya said brightly, looking around. She and her friends had been invited to spend the night, since no one wanted her on the road when it was dark out. Her two friends had disappeared to enjoy Tokyo's night life but she had remained behind to socialize with her brother's group. Two of them had morning classes, but they hadn't seemed to care about skipping them. "It would be fun that way. We just have to turn on some music and then it's more an activity than a chore."

    "That would work," Omi agreed, smiling back at her.

    Yohji muttered a quiet protest, flinging an arm across his eyes. Ken looked up from his spot on the floor in front of Schuldich, studying the German's expression. Schuldich was tired both physically and mentally. It had been a long day for him, a very new experience as well as a chaotic mess for him with his gift. Ken could see the weariness etched in his face. Schuldich returned the scrutiny.

    "I vote," Ken spoke up, "that we just call it a day and clean up in the morning. Everyone's tired; it's been a long day. Besides, it's not like the mess is something terrible that must be cleaned up immediately."

    "I'm with Ken," Yohji agreed immediately.

    "Lazy," Omi teased him. "If there's not much, then we can just take care of it now. Besides, Nagi and I will be gone tomorrow for school so you'll be down four hands and some telekinesis."

    "Morning," Farfarello spoke up, and everyone present glanced at him for his input. His eye was on Schuldich; he had noticed the German's fatigue like Ken had. "Morning, or Schuldich doesn't clean."

    The attention turned to Schuldich, who waved a hand in dismissal of their assessing gazes. "It doesn't matter much to me," he said.

    "In the morning, then," Crawford said.

    "Good." Schuldich grinned and began to shift, trying to get to his feet. Ken rose and extended a hand to help him up. The artist lifted his free hand in farewell as he made it up. He wasn't very steady on his feet, so Ken didn't release him. He wasn't sure he would want to let go of him even if Schuldich had been fine. "We're going to bed, then."

    "I thought you were tired," Aya taunted, an amused gleam in her eye.

    "Aya!" Ran sounded faintly mortified as he shot her a quick look.

    Ken laughed at Ran's reaction despite the mild embarrassment he felt over what Aya was insinuating. Someone snickered, and Ken was sure it was Yohji this time. Omi pressed himself closer to the redhead as he bit his lip to keep himself from laughing.

    Aya sent her brother a wide-eyed, innocent look. "'Niichan?"

    Ken grinned. "Good night, everyone."

Part 9