Part Nine: Coffee Smiles

    Schuldich and Farfarello were still asleep when Crawford and Ran left that morning. If they'd been awake, Schuldich would have been dropping none-too subtle hints for Crawford to take himself and Ran elsewhere. Undoubtedly the two lovers would be occupied most of the morning. Money was dwindling, so Crawford opted for the two to walk instead of trying to flag a cab. He only stored so much in his car, and most of that had disappeared for the hotel bill. What little remained had been divided among groceries and clothes, leaving the group with very little money. Their first stop was at the Magicbus Hospital, where the two boarded an elevator to the seventh floor.

    Ran entered the room behind Crawford. There were three beds in it, separated from each other by curtains. The first bed was empty, the second held a woman. On the other side of the second curtain, a small boy rested. The mental image of Farfarello dwarfed by the bed in the hotel room came to mind, as this boy seemed to sink into the white sheets that were under and on top of him. He looked to be fourteen, in Ran's eyes. Crawford stood on one side of the bed, eyes going over the boy in a cursory inspection. Ran reached out, lightly running his fingers over the child's forehead. The skin was smooth and cold.

    This was Nagi?

    "Poor child," Ran whispered. To be so young and in such a condition...

    "I recognize this," Crawford said from where he had moved to examine the charts at the base of Nagi's bed. "He's been like this before."

    "This is his second time in a coma?" Ran asked, appalled.

    "It's not a coma," Crawford informed him, lowering the charts back to their spot. "He's in a state that is below unconsciousness but above a coma. Last time, it lasted for a couple weeks. He should be up and about in seven or eight days. That is all I needed to know." He turned to go.

    Ran glanced once more at the boy, eyes running over the features. "What could cause something like this?" he asked, hurrying after his friend.

    "He was shielding someone when the building blew. The only one who was close enough, however, was Omi."

    "Omi again," Ran mused, recognizing the name from earlier that morning. "Omi must be important."

    "Now he is."

    Crawford motioned for Ran to wait and went to speak to the nurses at their station. Ran obeyed, leaning against the doorframe of the room where the sleeping Nagi was. He slipped his hands in his pockets and sighed quietly to himself. Life was cruel, doing such a thing to someone so young...

    Someone lightly touched his elbow, and he looked over to see a small nurse. "I haven't seen _you_ in a while," she greeted. "Have you already been to see Miss Fujimiya?"

    ~Who?~ "Ahh, no. I was visiting a friend of a friend's."

    "I cleaned her room up nice and neat for you," the nurse said, nodding and waving a rag in the direction of the rest of the rooms. Only three more lined this hall. "Don't forget to pay her a visit before you go. Just leave the door open, will you? I'm letting fresh air in."

    "I will," he assured her. She smiled and headed away. Ran watched her go, curiosity torn with an inner urging. Who was Miss Fujimiya? Was she another link to his past? She was obviously someone he visited with some frequency. His gaze lingered on the remaining rooms. Two doors were closed. One was open. He glanced towards Crawford before slowly padding down the hall. His heart was thudding in his chest, and he realized he was holding his breath.

    ~You're being silly, Ran,~ he chided himself.

    But what was it about this place that seemed to grab and pull him in? The urge to see her and the urge to run were equally strong. He reached the doorway and paused, hand resting on the doorframe. From here he could see that someone was in the bed. "Hello?" he called softly. "Are you awake?" If Miss Fujimiya was sleeping, maybe he shouldn't bother her...

    ~But I have to _see_...~

    Ran took a slow step inside the room.

    "Ran." Ran nearly jumped out of his skin, whirling around. His eyes fell on Crawford and he swallowed past a sudden constriction in his throat, a lump of fear that had formed. Crawford's eyes drifted from his to the bed and its occupant. "What are you doing?"

    A swirling vision- a memory:

    He was reaching for her, sitting on a bed, but the distance between them only seemed to increase. He found he couldn't look at her in the eyes, and he softly pleaded with her to understand. Then she was gone, and someone was whispering in his ear, taunting him..._Schuldich_...

    And it was gone.

    "Take me away from here, Crawford. Please?" Ran whispered frantically.

    Crawford studied him for a scant moment, brown eyes searching violet. Then Crawford nodded. He took Ran's elbow in a gentle grip and steered the redhead away from the room. Ran could feel himself trembling the whole way out of the hospital. Once outside, he didn't look back.


    Crawford was rarely the one to approach the Koneko no Sumu Ie. Schuldich usually did that- for fun and to scout around in the minds of Weiß. This was perhaps the American's second time at the shop, and as he came up to it, he realized just how popular the shop was. A glance at his watch told him that it was a few minutes too early for the school girls that packed the place to be rushing off to their classes. Only a few were outside, so Crawford had no trouble getting to the doors.

    The test, he soon decided, was getting _through_ the shop. He picked his way through the crowd, eardrums resenting the noise the girls were creating. This was not a place for someone of his stature to be. And he wouldn't be here, except he was the only one who could approach Weiß right now.

    His eyes easily picked out the three people on duty- Kudou Yohji, Tsukiyono Omi, and that Kritiker Agent Birman. His thoughts strayed to Ran, whom he'd deposited at a small coffee shop across the street to wait until Crawford was done. It had been the only thing he could do with the redhead. These girls would eat him alive, and he would be helpless without his stone mask to defend himself.

    Crawford did not have to do anything- merely stand there. His height was enough that he could be easily spotted. It only took a few moments' patience before he had the three pairs of eyes on him that he wanted. Weiß exchanged quick looks while Birman started towards him. The customers didn't mind her absence; they were more interested in the boys, anyway. Birman beckoned to Crawford and stepped into the next room where they could have privacy to talk.

    The look she turned on him was neither hostile nor friendly, more a mix of wariness and reluctance. "Where is Abyssinan?" she asked.

    "Safe," Crawford answered smoothly. He wasn't here to talk about Ran, but he knew that that was all Birman would want to speak about.

    "When can we expect Schwarz to return him?"

    He eyed her with a type of condescending amusement, a faint smirk curving the corner of his lips. She recognized the display of arrogance and her mouth thinned to a hard line. "Fujimiya is not being held against his will," he told her. "He chose to stay with us. When he decides otherwise, he will be allowed to return. It is all up to him."

    "How can we be sure you won't harm him?"

    "It would provide no amusement, to mess with one whose brains have been scrambled."

    She studied him for several moments, as if trying to decide whether or not he was being serious. Satisfied, she gave a nod and tilted her head to one side. "So why did you come?" she asked. "If not to talk about Abyssinian, then what?"

    "Three of Schwarz are up and about," he told her. She blinked, digesting this. "Nagi shielded your tactician, leaving him drained and hospitalized."

    She paused, then returned the courtesy of statistics, realizing that they were on a lightly threaded truce. She chose her words carefully. "Three of Weiß are up, including Abyssinian. One is suffering multiple broken bones and is in medical care."

    It was time for Crawford to pick his words. He knew what he would say would catch the agent's attention, though. "The target that night was Schwarz, and the explosion was done by someone who knew Weiß would be there for a confrontation."

    "We suspected as much," she murmured thoughtfully. Apparently she'd been hoping for a confirmation of her suspicion. She gave a slight nod. Crawford guessed she'd already digested that Schwarz's tactician was down- and came to the startling realization that Schwarz was not in a place that they could do their own information hunting, which said a lot.

    Crawford knew that what he was about to say would most likely get Schwarz kicked out of the ring they'd been working in since Estet's demise. It was a double-sided failure- Schwarz would lose the pickings they'd had for the past few months, and all of those businessmen would find themselves as possible targets. Of course, Schwarz could easily find another ring.

    Those men could not so easily protect themselves against Schwarz.

    "The people you will be looking for," he told her, and paused to make sure he had her complete attention, "will be part of the Northeast Ring."

    Her eyes widened slightly at this information, showing she hadn't expected him to narrow it down so much. She'd been hoping for a few hints, apparently, hints that wouldn't put Schwarz's job at risk. What Crawford had said had limited the search number to twenty-odd. The Northeast Ring was a close-knit group.

    Her response was washed out as a vision rippled over Crawford. He watched it and allowed it to pass. When it faded, he realized she had taken a step back from him and he was leaning slightly off-balance. He straightened himself easily. She made no comment, probably figuring out what had happened to him. She stepped aside and made a gesture for him to go first. He did without a second glance at her. The shop was empty, and he could feel the full force of Weiß's glares on the back of his neck. He didn't care, and ignored them as he stepped out into the morning sun.

    He was more occupied with the vision that centered around Ran.

    ~How dare they touch what does not belong to them.~


    They hadn't gone away yet. Ran looked up from the coffee he was drinking as the obvious leader of the men sat down across from him in the booth. The man leered at him. Ran turned his gaze upwards, sweeping over the faces of the other five. They were all willowy men. All of them were gazing at him with obvious hunger, a hunger that turned his stomach to ice.

    "So, pretty one," the leader said, attracting Ran's attention, "what do you think?"

    "I said no. Go away and leave me alone." He lifted his mug.

    A hand from the man closest to him pushed the mug firmly back to the table. The man leaned over, his cool breath washing over Ran's face and making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He refused to look at the man, keeping his eyes locked with the leader. "What's the matter, bishounen?" the one invading his personal space asked. "We'll be gentle."

    "He's probably a virgin," another snickered.

    "What are you doing out all by yourself, pretty boy?" the leader asked, reaching forward to caress Ran's hand. Ran jerked away from the contact, eyes narrowing.

    "I'm not by myself. My friend will be back soon."

    He was hauled to his feet by a firm grip on his elbow, and he found himself staring into sinister black eyes. "He won't miss you. Play along nicely, now..."

    Ran's eyes narrowed to slits. How dare these people touch him..."I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you don't let go." There. Their one and only warning. If they didn't let go of him...Well, he wasn't sure what he could do against six men, but he'd take out as many as he could!

    "What do you think you're doing?"

    At that familiar and loved voice, Ran had to close his eyes against the flood of relief that swept through him. It was like a hot wave that filled him from his head to his toes, making his fingertips tingle. The cause of that relief was a single foreigner by the name of Brad Crawford.

    The six men turned to see who had interrupted their fun. "Ch'. It's just a Westerner."

    "He looks like a stiff."

    "Homophobe, probably," the leader sniffed. "Geiko, start groping Touma and see if that makes him go away." The two men did as they were told. Crawford didn't even bat an eye. Apparently living with Schuldich had given him some protection against the shocks of public homoerotic behavior. When the leader noticed that didn't work, he glared and stood. "Go away, Westerner. This here is our friend. He's one of us. Ain't that right?" He gave Ran a warning glare, as if threatening him to go along.

    "I believe you've made a mistake," Crawford said calmly, smoothly. "Ran is mine."

    They blinked, exchanging quick glances. Ran's cheeks colored faintly at the words, though he told himself Crawford was saying them to get the men to let go. "What took you so long, Crawford?" he asked. "I ordered you some coffee."

    "Hey!" The sharp bark was from the shopkeeper. "If you guys are going to do things like that," and he made a disgusted face at the two who'd been feeling each other, "and talk big, get out of my shop. We don't allow trouble makers here. Either scat, or I call the police."

    There was a tense moment, then muttering among the six. More than one made a rude gesture at Crawford as they filed out of the shop. Ran was released and seated himself back in the booth. Crawford looked over at Ran, his tone half-amused and half-exasperated. "I can never leave you alone, can I?"

    "Oh~!" Ran wailed.

    Crawford blinked then eyed him. "Did their advances bother you that much?"

    "No, no, it's not that," Ran told him. He was feeling the two mugs of coffee, and turned a pouting face on Crawford. "Your coffee's cold!"

    Crawford was caught off guard by the answer. He stared at Ran for several seconds in disbelief, taking in the sulking expression. Finally he sighed, smiled, and shook his head. "Come on," the American said, turning away. "We'll take the back way out, since those men are waiting for us to exit the shop." He started away.

    Ran stared at his retreating back, mouth hanging open slightly.

    ~He smiled.~

    ~He smiled!!!~

    A brilliant smile lit up Ran's face. He fished the money Crawford had given him for coffee out of his pocket, slapping it down on the table before bouncing after the older man. It was easy enough to catch up to him, and he looped his arm through Crawford's, half-leaning against the older man as they walked.

    Crawford didn't push him away.

Part 10