He woke in an unfamiliar room, on a bed so hard he initially thought he was on the floor. He stared up at the gray ceiling, willing his thoughts to piece themselves back into some semblance of order, but they were content to drift in hazy circles. He recognized the lethargic feeling as that resulting from the use of strong painkillers, but it took him a minute of sluggish curiosity before he could figure out why he'd be drugged. Dimly he remembered walking down the street and having a child run into him. The blade he'd been stabbed with had been short, but combined with injuries from a mission the night before, it had been too much for his body. He'd hoped to make it home to avoid awkward doctors' questions regarding his wounds, but he hadn't made it far.
Apparently he'd been picked up just the same, but this didn't look like a hospital. Perhaps Kritiker had found him when he'd failed to check in before his flight. He couldn't afford to take chances, though, so he started piecing together a cover story. One hand slid across the sheets to feel out his uncovered abdomen. Medical gauze felt familiar under his fingers, an improbably soft roughness. He eased himself upright, careful to move slow enough that he didn't get lightheaded or aggravate his injury. It took just a couple seconds for his vision to clear and he peeled the bandage up. His cut was held closed with neat black stitches. He ran a considering thumb across the thread. Whomever had helped him had to have medical experience. It upped the chances of this being one of Kritiker's camps, at least.
He slid towards the edge of the bed and had just swung his legs over the side when the doorknob turned. He went still to face the door, only to blink in stupid surprise at the man that appeared in the doorway. Apparently it was a bad week to be a vigilante, because Crawford of Schwarz was gazing in at him. Ran eyed him warily, waiting for Crawford to make the first move. Crawford seemed content to simply stare back at him, and then a snow-white hand slid around his waist to press against his abdomen. Crawford obediently shifted to one side and, without Crawford's tall body in the way, Ran could see Farfarello behind him. The Irishman let go of Crawford and slid around him to start Ran's way.
"Why am I here?" Ran asked.
"Better to bleed on a bed than concrete."
Ran wasn't fooled by that implied consideration and his stare said so. Farfarello's smile was slow and he stopped in front of Ran, lowering himself to a crouch to put his face about even with the bandage. He reached out, tugging the bandage the rest of the way off, and pressed his thumb against the stitches. There was enough medicine lingering in Ran's system that it didn't hurt, but he brushed Farfarello's hand aside just the same. Farfarello let him, for some reason.
"Destroyed by a child," the Irishman mused. "Fitting."
Pride stiffened Ran's spine. "I was not destroyed."
"On the contrary, you had the situation under control," Crawford agreed. Ran shifted his glare that direction, but Crawford wasn't impressed. Instead his expression was that of thinly veiled impatience. "In exchange for your treatment and the use of our bed, kindly clarify for Farfarello that it was indeed a child who stabbed you."
Farfarello's lip curled a little in scorn and he flicked Crawford a sideways look over his shoulder. How he managed it with just one eye, Ran wasn't sure. "Let him speak for himself without you handing him the words to say," he said. "You agreed." Crawford pressed his fingertips against his forehead, an obvious try for patience, and Farfarello turned back on Ran. "Do you suppose it was God?" he asked.
Ran stared at him. Farfarello's expression was inscrutable. On first glance it looked dreamy; on the second there was something tight and tense around the edges of his smile.
"I misheard you," Ran said slowly. Farfarello just gazed back at him. "You think God stabbed me?"
"Plausible theory," the Irishman said, pressing his hands to the mattress to either side of Ran's thighs and pushing himself up. He moved in as close as he could get without touching Ran and looked from one amethyst eye to the other. He didn't smell like incense today; instead he smelled of proper cologne. That was disorienting, since Ran couldn't imagine Farfarello bothering with such things.
"We mocked him yesterday in his own house. I have done it time and again with little success, but perhaps this time we've succeeded. Perhaps you are the key for making him take notice. He lashed out against you for falling so quickly before me."
"I have already told you I don't believe in God."
"But perhaps he believes in you. Or did," Farfarello amended, "until you let me fuck you."
Ran went rigid at that, refusing to believe that Farfarello had just said such a thing out loud. He wasn't a man for denial or shying away from the truth, but Crawford was just a short distance away. Maybe Farfarello didn't care what Crawford thought of him, and Ran knew that, technically, he shouldn't care either, but still. He said nothing about Farfarello's slip, but the man picked up on his disapproval just the same. Farfarello waved a hand in casual dismissal and slid Crawford another hooded look.
"He cannot complain of adultery when he foresaw it," he advised Ran, and Ran felt his grip on reality slide a bit further out of reach. "All he can fault you for is coveting thy neighbor's wife, perhaps."
Ran tried not to stare at Crawford and failed. It was one thing- albeit, one reckless, suicidal thing- to sleep with Farfarello. It was another thing entirely to sleep with Farfarello when he was already taken. That his relationship was with Crawford… Well, that was an even greater mess.
"I didn't know," he said.
"I did," Crawford said carelessly. "That is not the issue here."
"He is more interested in my supposed delusion," Farfarello said, turning back on Ran. "Argue with me and convince me God had nothing to do with this. A young child picked you out of a crowded sidewalk. He didn't want to rob you and he likely held no personal grudge against you. So why did he attack you?"
"There are dozens of possible explanations."
"Give me one you honestly believe."
"I will give you several," Ran said. "For starters, he could have been a target's surviving relative. Maybe he is part of a children's gang in this area; youth crime is on the rise in Japan. He could simply have been a mentally disturbed child. There's no conclusive evidence that any god had a hand in it."
"You admit your incompetence as an assassin by implying you left survivors."
"I'm far more likely and willing to believe I was spotted and subsequently stalked by an overlooked, young survivor than I am to believe your God exists and waited until now to punish me. After everything else I've done, why would you be the step too far? How special do you think you are, honestly, as one man among several billion, that he would stir himself over yesterday's actions? Why wouldn't he have reacted to your massacres or my missions, or you and Crawford or me and-"
"Hidaka," Crawford supplied when Ran faltered. Ran flicked him a quick look and Crawford quirked a brow in response. "We believe in staying well-informed when it comes to our associates."
"Associates," Ran echoed. Crawford offered him the barest of mocking smirks in response.
"You haven't convinced me," Farfarello pointed out.
"You haven't convinced either of us," Crawford returned. Farfarello huffed a little in annoyance and pushed himself up the rest of the way. Ran looked from one to the other as the Irishman turned to face his lover. "What use do you honestly have for your god? If he does turn out to exist, then what? You will be forced to cease everything you are and do. I am trying to imagine you spending the rest of your life repenting and spreading goodwill among the people of earth."
"Aside from mourning the loss of your Berserker, how does it concern you?"
"Your god does not exist," Crawford told him. "What's more: he never has."
"Prove it," Farfarello dared him.
"I grow exceedingly bored of having these arguments with you over and over again."
Ran thought that it was past time for him to be leaving, but a careful look around showed him that his shirt and coat were nowhere in sight. He started to get to his feet. Farfarello didn't look back at him but caught him by his hair to push him back down. Ran grabbed at his wrist to try and pry his hand free, but Farfarello's fingers just tightened.
"I have waited years for him to answer me," Farfarello insisted in a low, heated voice. Crawford started his way and Farfarello straightened, defiance stretching him out as tall as he could go. "I will get a response. If not today, then perhaps tomorrow, or a year from now. Everything I do drives me closer to that moment."
Crawford stopped right in front of him, so close to Farfarello that their chests were touching, so close to Ran that he could reach out and touch the man. It made him sorely regret the lack of any sharp weaponry, except Crawford was on the Do Not Harm list Persia had passed out. Crawford seemed to have tuned Ran's existence out completely in favor of staring Farfarello down. Ran didn't like being ignored, but seeing as he was shirtless, injured, lightly drugged, and weaponless, he'd make an exception just this once.
"You are deluding yourself," Crawford informed Farfarello. "Everything you do proves that you don't want him to exist. You have spent years destroying his people. How would you dare look him in the eye? If you are so certain he exists, then you should live as if you think he does. Your entire life is a knot of contradictions."
"Prove that he doesn't exist."
"Everything you've ever done and gotten away with proves it."
It sounded like a well-worn argument between them, like carpet run threadbare from pacing angrily back and forth across it for years. Any bitterness from the sharply contrasting views had been dulled over the years to futile frustration, with a hardness underneath it that was more from stubbornness than anything else. Maybe a year ago, or two years ago, they'd first had this fight with angry voices and sharp gestures. Now it was practiced, an unavoidable but unsurprising bone of contention.
"Except for this," Farfarello said, giving a small shake of the hand still buried in Ran's hair. "This is the anomaly. He is the anomaly."
"You're insane," Ran told him, and Farfarello finally turned back on him.
"Let it go," Crawford said, starting for the door once more. The Irishman's mouth thinned to a hard line in obvious displeasure over having his logic ignored by both of them. "Stop reacting like an impulsive child and actually think this through."
Farfarello didn't answer that and didn't look back to watch as Crawford left. Instead he stared down at Ran, searching for answers the redhead wouldn't give him. Finally he relaxed his grip on Ran's hair, but he didn't draw his hand back. Ran brushed his hand free and Farfarello let it fall limply to his side. They eyed each other, Ran waiting for the second round of such an impossible argument, and Farfarello lost in his own thoughts.
When the silence stretched longer, Ran started to get to his feet. "I have a flight to catch."
"You missed your flight," Farfarello answered him easily, taking a step to the side to block Ran with his body. It forced Ran back to the edge of the mattress. "It is night. There are no more flights to Europe tonight. You will leave in the morning."
"Then I must check in with Kritiker."
"Crawford already has. They know where you are."
He didn't add, 'and aren't concerned', but Ran heard it. That, more than anything, drove it home that Kritiker no longer viewed Schwarz as targets. He wondered what they could have possibly done for Mamoru. They had been immensely useful at Koua, but the alliance had started before then. The details of the arrangement were classified, which meant Ran would never get an explanation from Kritiker. It sounded wrong to try and get one from Schwarz, so he abided by Mamoru's decision and left his questions unasked.
Instead he asked, "Why are you so determined to believe?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"There's no proof."
"You are alive and breathing and bleeding and thinking; you are sentient and feeling. The earth spreads out before you with life and death and sunsets. One miniscule change in the formation of the earth and it would never have been hospitable. One slide closer or further to the sun; one slightly different makeup in the atmosphere. Yet everything is perfect and how it should be to ensure our existence."
"Perfect for humans," Ran consented, "but who's to say we are the race that was supposed to inhabit earth? Perhaps there were other races that could have had a chance to evolve, if only there had been different circumstances. Just because we can think doesn't mean we have a right to self-entitlement and believing ourselves the center of the universe."
"Which one of us really is Satan?" Farfarello asked, amused. "Which one of us is the seeder of doubts?"
"Your arguments make no sense except to a fundamentalist. You read too far into things that are so easily explained."
"Now you sound like Crawford."
"Then maybe you should listen to him."
Farfarello gave a wave of his hand in dismissal. "His argument is biased," he said. "His logic is flawed from the start. I cannot have him as my god as long as I believe the original is still watching over us. Crawford would cut out the core to put a new one in place, but I will not let him."
Ran gave a little snort at that. "Crawford is no god."
"There are only absolutes with Farfarello," Crawford's voice came, and footsteps tapped across the floor as he approached. He came up alongside Farfarello and set a glass of water down on the nightstand. He met Ran's gaze before letting go of the rim of it, making sure with that glance that Ran knew it was his. Ran made no move to take it. "He must have a god to follow."
"No wonder you recruited him," Ran said evenly. "That mentality suits your arrogance."
Crawford answered that with the barest of smirks and turned his attention on Farfarello. Ran followed his stare that way and they considered the silent Irishman. Farfarello was gazing at Ran and through him, warring with this thoughts, struggling for the next piece in his argument against two such adamant nonbelievers.
"Logic," Farfarello said at last. "An experiment. Proof." He lifted his hand again, this time moving it to Ran's face, and slid his fingertips over Ran's cheek before pressing his palm to warm skin. "This can be tested. If I am correct and God does not want us touching each other, then he will try and harm you again. If you are correct and it was just a child, then you will make it to your flight safely tomorrow and your plane will not crash over Russia. Correct?"
"I see flaws in that logic," Ran said.
"An addendum to that argument," Crawford said. "If Fujimiya makes it safely to Europe and is not dead within the first six months of his assignment there, then you will give up your belief in your god's existence."
That earned Crawford a fierce look. "On what grounds?"
"On the grounds that you finally had a concrete way of proving it and failed," Crawford answered calmly. "If you believe so strongly in your argument, then you will be willing to lay it all on the line here. If he lives, you will give up. If he dies, then you will know you have always been right."
"Isn't that an unfair argument from a precognitive?" Ran asked.
"I cannot see that far down the road and Farfarello knows it," Crawford said, still not looking at him. He was staring Farfarello down and Farfarello was staring back.
Glancing over at him, Ran was startled to see how tense Farfarello had just become. The man had devoted his life to blind faith, even if it was a rather twisted and broken view. Now he hovered on the line he'd always been looking for, and Crawford was shoving hard at him to truly acknowledge it. Crawford was forcing him to side with his baseless faith and Farfarello seemed to be realizing what fragile ground he was standing on. He should have just gone with his faith and agreed in a heartbeat, but staring at a precognitive who only had his own interests in mind, Farfarello was starting to sense an answer he really didn't want.
"Stop it," Farfarello warned him quietly. "This doesn't concern you."
"You stop," Crawford returned. "It's years past time for you to stop. Let go of your senseless pursuit and hatred. Just give in to the reality of your god's death."
"He is not dead," Farfarello spat back at him.
"Then prove it," Crawford said in a hard voice.
Farfarello shoved past him on his way to the door. His footsteps were loud in his anger and he vanished into the hallway, leaving Crawford and Ran alone. Ran gazed warily at the empty doorway before shifting his gaze up to Crawford.
"You have already done it once," Crawford informed him. "It means you will have no reservations about sleeping with him again."
"I take offense to you selling me out and gambling on my life."
"I do not care," Crawford answered easily. "You have already reached the crossroads. You have already been given a chance to bury your hate and keep going. You will now give that chance to Farfarello." He rested a hand against the nightstand and leaned in, getting right in Ran's face. "I need him to let go of his grudges so he can focus on our current work. I do not cry for his victims, Fujimiya. In fact, I could care less except that his mindless rampages interfere with my plans. You, on the other hand, are a different matter. I have heard his confessions before. I know he explained to you why he does what he does."
Ran remembered Farfarello's words a little too well. Farfarello had told the priest point-blank that he would keep destroying as many lives as he could until his god finally raised a hand to make him stop. As long as Farfarello believed in that god, he would keep slaughtering as many people as he could to get a response. If he could be convinced that there was no god to sit up and take notice, he would lose the driving force behind that.
"For all you or I know, losing the chance of any possible retribution from a god will just make him worse," Ran pointed out.
"I am enough to control him if I have his undivided attention," Crawford said. "Schwarz will be busy enough in the upcoming years that he will not have a chance to break free like that. He will always be a killer, Fujimiya. You just get to decide which scale it's on."
"By having sex with him," Ran said, wondering if it sounded as ridiculous out loud as it did in his head.
"By staying alive afterwards," Crawford corrected him. "I don't think you're particularly opposed to either of those conditions."
Ran thought about demanding hands against his skin and teeth marking out the line of his throat, and curses stuttered and choked against shoulders and hot flesh. "Doesn't that bother you at all?" he asked, searching Crawford's eyes. The man was so close he could smell his cologne. It smelled the same as Farfarello's, and idly he wondered if they used the same brand or if it spread from one to the other from such close contact. The thought sent a funny curl through his gut that he ruthlessly squished. "He's yours."
Crawford quirked an eyebrow at him. "Farfarello belongs to no man."
"Just his god," Ran concluded slowly.
He thought about the flash of hatred and fury in Farfarello's stare yesterday when Farfarello had demanded to know whether or not his god's rules were fair. For the most part, Farfarello had been cool and contained, but the tiny flashes of honest emotion and some of the things he'd said had struck deep. Ran recognized that sort of muted, helpless rage. He'd lived with it for years, until Takatori had died and Aya had woken up again. He remembered how all-consuming and suffocating such an emotion could be. To think that was what was swallowing Farfarello whole was more than a little disturbing, because Ran had made a point to never sympathize with his targets.
But then, Farfarello wasn't a target anymore.
That still didn't entitle Farfarello to any assistance, and yet…
'He could never understand you. Not like I always could.'
Incense and blood and hard, hard kisses.
Lastly, his thoughts drifted over the children sitting in the church yesterday. Farfarello had let them live then, but he'd promised the priest he would continue to systematically destroy as many people as he could. If Ran could slow that down, at least a little, then what more could he ask for?
"If he agrees," he said at last.
"He will," Crawford said with quiet confidence. "He has to know. It's a relentless, desperate itch against everything he is."
Ran said nothing to that, but Crawford continued to study him as if waiting for more. "What?"
"Just debating what he sees in you. I don't quite understand how his fascination has lasted this long."
"One year," was the unhesitating response. Ran stared back at him, a bit taken back by such an unexpected heads-up. "Your looks deserve a second glance, perhaps, but not a third or fourth, and your personality is more than a little off-putting."
"Are you talking about me or yourself?" Ran asked coolly. "I don't see anything remotely attractive about you, either."
Crawford stared back at him in silence and Ran had the distinct impression he'd offended the other man. It was a first and Ran didn't even try to stop the small prickle of smug satisfaction. He let his lips twitch a little into a ghost of a smirk, there and gone again, lingering just long enough for Crawford to get a look at it.
"You have always been annoying," Crawford concluded.
"If it's you I'm bothering, then I'll take that as a compliment."
Crawford's hand came up. Ran's first thought was that the man might hit him, but instead Crawford caught his chin and tilted his head back a little to stare hard at him. At length Crawford let his hand fall away and straightened without another word. He turned and started for the door. Ran had his mouth open to call after him, wanting his shirt, at least. He didn't get to voice it before he heard glass shattering in the distance. His hand immediately went for his nonexistent sword. Crawford didn't seem particularly worried and didn't speed up on his way out of the room.
Ran waited just a few seconds more, debating, and then eased himself to his feet. His stomach pulled a little uncomfortably, but the medicine was doing its job and kept any pain dulled to discomfort. He made it to the doorway and stared up and down the hall, unsure which direction Crawford had gone.
"Let it go," Crawford's voice came, right on cue. Ran slipped into the hall and moved carefully down it, placing every step so as not to make a sound. "Just let it go. You've held on for long enough."
"How do I know this isn't just a ruse on your part?" Farfarello demanded. "You, the so-called all-knowing, you, who lives to watch people buckle beneath you? You've said your sight doesn't reach that far, but how can I believe you about this? How do I know you're not just manipulating this for the result you want? You're asking me to take a leap of faith in your word. I already told you I never would."
Ran reached the next doorway and peered in at the kitchen. Farfarello was standing half-hunched over the counter, holding himself up with bloody hands against the wall. Shattered glasses covered the counter where he'd thrown or crushed them up against the wall. He didn't seem to notice the pain or the blood that left thin rivers down the white paint. His head was bowed far enough that Ran couldn't see his expression, but the acid in his voice gave him enough of an idea as to what it looked like. Crawford wasn't intimidated. He'd stopped right up against Farfarello's back and he traced his hands up Farfarello's arms to lay them overtop the Irishman's.
"We wouldn't be here if my gift was stronger," Crawford reminded him. "You know that. Don't split hairs just because you're afraid."
Farfarello reacted to that by slamming his elbow backwards, but Crawford had taken hold of his hand for a reason and he jerked Farfarello's arm straight before the blow could land. They struggled with each other for a few moments, but Farfarello had started off in a bad position for fighting and Crawford was heavier. The American used his own body to shove Farfarello down against the counter, completely uncaring that it was covered with glass. Farfarello's shirt helped protect him from most of it, not that he could feel the pain of the cuts anyway. Ran still flinched at such careless handling.
"I am not afraid," Farfarello snarled at Crawford, cold and furious.
Crawford pressed a kiss against his throat, right above his collar. "Then prove it. You know as well as I do that your life hasn't been lived waiting for a positive answer. What you really want is something definitive. How are you going to walk away from it now?"
Farfarello didn't answer that immediately. "Give yourself to me," Crawford told him in a low voice, so quietly that Ran could barely make out the words. "Your god doesn't exist to take notice of your life. Give your blood and your breaths and your murders to me in his place. I have far greater use for them, and infinitely more interest. Stop trying to juggle loyalties and just pick sides."
Farfarello still had nothing to say to that, but he moved. Crawford relaxed his grip enough for Farfarello to raise his hands. The Irishman didn't straighten or look up, but he found Crawford's head just the same and knotted his fingers in dark hair. The strained edge to his breathing made Ran think he was sucking in air around clenched teeth. Ran edged a little further out of view, oddly disturbed- and, more oddly, fascinated- by the sight of them tangled there together.
"Six months," Farfarello said at length, and Crawford stepped back a little to let him up. "He'll be dead in six months."
"I suppose we'll see," Crawford returned easily, guiding Farfarello around in a practiced motion. Blood dotted Farfarello's shirt and face and the sparkles across his skin meant glass had found bare flesh. Neither man seemed to care. Crawford kissed him hard and it was strange watching Farfarello give ground to him. Fingers wrapped around Crawford's throat, staining his skin and his pristine business shirt red with blood.
Something about the way they kissed made Ran think Farfarello really was afraid, in some distant, tiny part of himself that he'd forgotten could ever exist. The man had built his life on hatred and faith, shoring up everything he did and was with resentment and religion. Now Crawford was forcing him to see how useless that had all been, and Farfarello wasn't ready to let go. Or maybe he was, if he was so angry about this ultimatum. Ran didn't know.
He turned away from them and slowly made his way back down the hall to the bedroom, thinking that he really should just walk away from all of this and leave them to their issues. He stopped beside the bed and stood there, and he couldn't completely explain why he stayed. He was still there when Farfarello showed up. Blood and glass slid against his cheeks, hot and cold in turn, as Farfarello caught at him and dragged him forward into a kiss. Ran was only dimly aware of Crawford's arrival. The precognitive looked more human, somehow, when he had Farfarello's blood on him. Ran met his gaze briefly over Farfarello's shoulder as Crawford stopped behind the Irishman. He wondered what Crawford was doing there, but he already knew and he'd rather not hear it out loud.
"You'll be dead soon," Farfarello said against Ran's mouth, drawing Ran's attention back to him. "I won't be sorry."
"I wouldn't expect you to be," Ran returned. "It's a useless warning, anyway. I don't plan on dying any time soon."
Farfarello just offered him a wicked smirk that said he'd buried all of his uneasiness as deep as he could beneath his usual cold surety. His hands slid down over Ran's front and he pressed his fingers hard against Ran's stitches. Crawford's hands were between their bodies, working at the buttons on Farfarello's vest, looking unnaturally dark when they were pressed up against such light skin.
Ran was the one to lean in this time, finding Farfarello's mouth with his own, tasting hatred and denial in the blood on Farfarello's tongue. He smelled like Crawford beneath all of that, a thick musk that was stronger still with the American so close. It seemed strange when Farfarello had smelled like incense yesterday, but oddly appropriate. In six months, Farfarello would have to find a new god, and Crawford would be waiting to take that role.
Despite that surety, a tiny part of Ran told him that he'd better be on his guard for the next six months.
After all, he'd gotten attacked this morning by a child he'd never seen before, whom he knew had absolutely no connections to his recent targets, and he'd been felled by such a tiny stab.
Farfarello wasn't praying today.
Ran did instead, but he kept the words to himself, whispered silently between his mouth and Farfarello's.
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