P.O.D --- Payment on Delivery

Sixteen: The Magic of Magic Bus
"He believed I was something better than what I was."

    It took almost fifteen minutes for Ken to convince Ouka that he needed to go to the hospital to have his leg looked at. He didn't remember most of the argument; his head was a foggy haze between thoughts of the dead woman sprawled out on the other side of the room and the pain in his knee. He could hear himself talking and he knew that he was talking about doctors, but it was all happening from a distance where he couldn't reach out and interfere with it.

    ~I just killed someone. Oh God, I killed someone, Schuldich.~

    Whether Ouka gave in because she accepted that professional help was best or because she just wanted to shut him up, Ken didn't know and didn't care. He just knew that she went and fetched Hel, who hauled him to his feet. The fresh pain from such an abrupt move almost had him passing out. He saw the world spin before him into a dizzying black rush and he could hear the roar of water in his ears.

    "You should be more careful with him," Ouka said, though she didn't sound overly concerned.

    "I have a history of not being careful with his family," was the easy response. "Just ask him."

    Ken didn't understand but he wasn't in any shape to ask about it, so he just let Hel attempt to get him towards the door. He didn't put any weight on his bad leg but it hurt just as bad to let it drag and he didn't have the strength to bend it to lift it off the floor. He frankly thought it was a wonder he wasn't crying or puking from the sheer pain and the terrifying knowledge that that was his only good leg, but there was a part of him that was still sane enough to know that he desperately didn't want to lose it in front of these girls.

    "He's heavy," Hel noted.

    "Deal with it," Ouka returned. "Move faster or he'll bleed on my floor."

    They reached the hall just as a few men showed up, and Hel turned Ken over to them. "You take him," she said. "I'll take care of Schoen."


    Ken rolled his head to one side, staring through ragged bangs towards Hel as he was lifted effortlessly by one of the men. The man was saying something to him; Ken remembered later that he found the rote politeness amusing, but in that moment, he heard none of the words that were offered him. He was staring at Hel as she turned back towards the apartment, and that name she'd just spoken was sinking in.


    Schoen had been…

    ~"Ara~ Look at him burn, Schoen! We should have brought marshmallows!"~

    Schoen had been Asuka's partner, so many years ago. Then Hel was…? Her name didn't stick out in his memory, nor did her face, but people changed with age. People changed and she was… She had… He struggled with his mind, finding again that memory of the picnic, and dug through it to where he'd been playing with the children. There had been two other girls there standing off to the side, feeling too old to join in the play even though Asuka hadn't had problems with it.

    It was like a switch being thrown. Ken had been breaking all day, shattering from the inside out, and this revelation just broke him further. The remorse and nausea he'd felt over killing that woman vanished abruptly, whisked away by something colder. Ken started to reach after it but the pain in his leg demanded that he pay attention to it, and in the end, he let it go.

    ~Bad things always happen to good people.~

    Schuldich's words came back to him. They hadn't been spoken in reference to Schoen, but Ken figured they fit: "What it all boils down to is that she was a bitch and that she got what was coming to her. I've known her for a long time now, Ken, and I can tell you she earned that crash. She was a bad person on so many levels that you'll never be able to understand. You don't have to feel obligated to mourn her when you didn't like her. It was an accident, after all. No one could have prevented it. Maybe it was just her time to go."

    It had been an accident. He hadn't been intending to kill her, after all. It was self defense. He'd been kidnapped and carried away to talk to Takatori Reiji's daughter and those two had been trying to keep him from leaving. They'd been trying to hurt him, just like they'd destroyed his family and his life so many years ago.

    She ruined his life; he took away hers.

    It was a sick justice, but it was justice nonetheless, and Ken thought he could learn to live with it.

    He realized Ouka was looking at him; she had her hand on one of the new arrival's arm to keep him from leaving yet. Ken glanced towards her and met her gaze steadily, and he saw in the understanding in her eyes that something had clicked and helped further destroy Hidaka Ken.

    "Let it go," she whispered.

    "I don't want to talk to you," he told her.

    "Let it go," she insisted again, voice low. Her free hand came up to his face where he was held to the man's chest and her fingers brushed over one cheek. "Life only hurts if you allow it to cut you. Let it all go. Hidaka Ken is a lie. Matsumichi is the truth, and Matsumichi has what it takes to survive this. You don't have to let this hurt."

    "She put a knife in my knee," Ken pointed out matter-of-factly. "I believe I have the right to think it hurts."

    He knew what she was talking about, but that didn't mean he wanted to acknowledge it. She just shook her head at him and stepped back, and the men turned and started down the hall. Ouka followed behind them, shoes clicking against the floor. They took the elevator down to the first floor and Ken decided that there'd have been no way of him escaping out the window, as her room was on the twelfth story.

    "My, it would suck if your apartment building ever caught on fire," Ken observed. "Somehow I doubt you'd be able to make it out."

    He wasn't sure where the words came from and idly wondered if he should regret them. Ouka offered him a small smile; he saw it in her reflection on the mirrored wall. "I have been fortunate thus far," she answered. "I have heard that it is rather painful to burn alive."

    His father's screams were too loud in his memory. "Fuck you, hell spawn."

    "We're going to get along just fine," Ouka decided, tilting her head back to watch the numbers above the door count down. "That is a relief."

    "Drinks all around," Ken muttered, and she gave his foot a comforting pat.

    The car they took to the hospital was the same black van that had been used to bring him here, and Ken was set in the back seat. It wasn't long enough for him to lay down so he sat sideways instead, back to the window so he could keep his legs outstretched. Ouka sat in the seats ahead of him, kneeling backwards on the cushion so she could watch him. The two men were both up front, and Ken wondered about the ease with which they left Ouka alone in back with him. His first thought was that they were going to wait on Hel, but Ouka pulled the sliding door shut and they pulled out of the parking lot.

    "We're going to get along just fine," Ouka repeated herself just a few minutes into the drive. Her arms were folded across the back of the chair and she propped her chin on them, studying Ken's face. He gazed back steadily, trying to ignore the pain that was knifing up and down his right leg. "You will wed me, won't you, Ken? I've explained the reasons behind such a thing. I would much rather marry you than whoever my father sees fit to pair me up with. You're perfect. I won't have to fight you for the power that I have been raised with and you're rather easy on the eyes. There will finally be peace in Tokyo's underworld and we can make Japan however we see fit."

    She considered that for a few moments, gaze distant. "I do not agree with everything my father says and does," she admitted. "I would ask you don't tell him that, however. He is a little too Machiavellian for me and I believe that there are better ways to get things accomplished. The Matsumichi ideals and my own ideas could truly make Japan perfect. You do agree, don't you? We can save so many lives if you marry me. I would like a big wedding. It is only appropriate for people with our status to have the best of the best, and I have known for years I wanted a wedding like my mother's. How many children should we have, Ken?"

    "Children?" he echoed, arching an eyebrow at her. He was feeling disturbed by the conversation- not the clinical way she was speaking or the lack of any emotion on her face, but by the fact that she was making sense. Judging by the fact that Farfarello had come to Japan solely to take the throne back from the Takatoris, Ken hardly thought he'd stop now that he finally had the chance to take Takatori Reiji out forever. Ken remembered how many people had come by that club to pay homage to Omi as the centerpiece of Farfarello's movements, and he could easily imagine a full-out bloody war, the likes of which were only supposed to be seen in movies or long-past times.

    Ouka was making sense in her explanation that this was a way out. He could follow the reasons. Ouka wouldn't give up the power and Takatori wouldn't let his family lose it, and there were still people loyal to them. If Farfarello and Takatori were both content to take this to that sort of war, then what else could Ken do?

    "One is not enough, because there is the risk of the child being incompetent. Two means a great struggle between them. I think three would be a good number. Do you agree, Ken?" She focused on him again, drawing back from whatever her mind had been considering.

    "I can't sleep with you," Ken informed her. "I'm gay."

    She blinked, not expecting that. "What?"

    "I'm gay," Ken answered again. "I can't sleep with you. You're a girl."

    Ouka thought that over for a long moment, humming faintly to herself as she tried to process this new information. "I'm sure I could get you drunk enough that you could sleep with me at least three times," she pointed out. "I'm not ugly, you know." There was a brief return of her earlier huffy attitude but it was quick to fade, and she pushed herself up from where she was resting against the chair back. "If not, we can use in-vetro fertilization. There are ways around such matters. I suppose that means you will want to have a lover on the side? If so, I would like you to pick a permanent one and make him part of our staff and keep it under wraps. I don't want there to be a fuss about my husband being gay. It would shame me and our family."

    "Why don't you just figure everything out?" Ken asked, and he could feel himself sneering at her. "Work out all of the little details?"

    "I have to," she told him, chiding him for his easy dismissal of her thoughts. "People like us-"

    "We aren't an 'us'," Ken sent back flatly. "I lost my memory when Hel's group burned my house down. That's how I've stayed sane up until this point and I'm not happy to have the return of my memory. I just found out who I was today. There isn't an 'us' because I'm nothing like you."

    She just stared at him. "What…?"

    "Have fun working around that," Ken told her, and he closed his eyes against her. She had nothing else to say to him for the rest of the ride; he heard her cushion creak and peeked open an eye to see that she had turned around in her chair to face the front. He found himself satisfied that he'd finally found something to shake her perfect little foundation and closed his eyes again. He didn't want to think about what was going on but there wasn't much use in hiding from it. Things were looking pretty hopeless right about now. If he didn't agree to this wedding think, the Takatoris would kill him right here and then Farfarello's people would fight to get Omi-Mamoru on the Takatori throne. If he agreed to it, there was the chance of peace.

    He hated that his first thought following that was the question of whether or not he could interest Schuldich in staying with him. First of all, the German would never agree, and second of all, there was no reason Ken should still be interested in him. Schuldich had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with this. As Nagi had said, Schuldich had found out the truth and had gotten out of the middle of it as fast as possible. He'd done his jobs for both Crawford and Farfarello and had turned to looking for his own protection. He was far away by now, if Crawford had told the truth about him leaving the country.

    Ken wished he could resent the German for what he'd done, but Schuldich was surprisingly the only one in the entire group he wasn't furious with at the moment. He thought what Schuldich had done had been horrible, but-

    Schuldich had come back.

    Ken couldn't work his way around that. Schuldich had left; he'd heard the door close behind him. But the German had come back.

    It thoroughly ticked him off that he was trying to justify Schuldich's actions when the man had done nothing to earn such consideration, but he couldn't stop himself. Between what Crawford and Farfarello had said, Schuldich hadn't been what he'd said he'd been, but he still hadn't been prepared to find out what he stumbled into. Ken couldn’t' really blame him for getting out of there; if Ken had any say in it, he'd be as far away from this mess as possible, too. Maybe he was just mad that Schuldich had actually been able to run away.

    Whatever the reasons, Ken couldn't make himself hate Schuldich. His emotions went in the exact opposite direction instead, wishing the German was around right now with his sharp humor and his careless attitude towards life. Schuldich had been the most real thing to ever happen Ken, which was funny since his entire presence had been a lie. But his words- his words hadn't been lies. He was achingly honest, brutally so. And there hadn't been a lie in the way he'd touched Ken. Job or not, Ken couldn't find a reason to think that Schuldich had been faking any of what they'd done.

    ~I want to see you again,~ Ken thought, though he knew the German couldn't hear him. ~I want to see you again. I want to talk to you again. I want you to tell me *why*. I want to work through this. I just- I just don't want to be in the middle of this on my own, and you're the only one I want to stand with. Please?~

    The thoughts didn't make him feel any better, and Ken sat miserably in the back of the van until they reached the hospital.

    Ken was carried inside of the emergency room and brought up to the counter. They attracted stares and he wasn't sure if it was because he was being carried around like a child, because blood was leaking through the bandages on his knee, or because Ouka was with him. In the end he decided it was a combination of all three, and he kept his face turned away from the blatant staring. The nurse at the desk looked up from her work and Ken saw the blood leave her face when she spotted the girl of their group. He dropped his eyes from her face before she could look at him, and he felt his own world give a funny twist when he saw the sign-in sheet on the counter in front of him.



    The German's name was the second on the list, and if they'd come even a half hour later Ken wouldn't have seen it. The page was almost full and his name would take the last slot; if anyone else had come in ahead of them, the page would have been turned.

    He felt his heart pounding in his chest as he raked his gaze down the line. Schuldich had been checked into the ER just a little while before Ken's visit to Crawford, and the scrawled signature beside his was Yohji's. It wasn't Yohji's handwriting, however; Ken had seen it scratched out on enough notes to recognize it as Farfarello's.

    ~What was Schuldich doing in the ER?~ Ken thought, panicked. Ouka moved into his way to sign Ken in and he wanted to reach out and shove her aside to keep staring at the German's name. Somehow he doubted it would be smart to let her know about the foreigner, however, considering Schuldich's connection to the Takatoris' demise.

    Oddly enough, remembering that admission from Farfarello had Ken's heart twisting in something like violent pride. He was pissed enough and scared enough of the Takatoris and this sudden situation to find it absolutely amazing that his live-in lover of a week had managed to take out someone as strong as the Takatori clan. He was distinctly aware of the fact that he would have been horrified to find out such a thing just a few days ago.

    Funny how a few days, a remembered past, and a knife to the knee could change one's entire outlook on life.

    Ouka moved and Ken noted the name of the doctor that had taken care of Schuldich, hoping that the man was still on shift. He had to get it in a quick glance, because another nurse was rising to admit them straight from the waiting room to the back. Ouka started that direction and the man carrying Ken waited just a moment so he could adjust his grip. Ken glanced towards the nurse at the table, taking in her sickly expression. She looked towards him and he took advantage of the met gaze to mouth to her the doctor's name. It worked its way through her shock; he saw her lean back slightly, eyes narrowing faintly in surprise. He mouthed it again, taking a "Please" onto the end, and then he was being turned away.

    He was brought through a set of double doors and to the first empty room they could find. Various bits of machinery lined the walls and Ken was set down on the bed. Ouka took the stool to his side, reaching out to curl her hand through his. It was an automatic gesture, not one meant for any sort of reassurance, and Ken wanted to pull his hand away. It just had him comparing it to Schuldich's hand, and hers was much too small and cold.

    ~Why was Schuldich in the ER? Why did Farfarello bring Schuldich to the ER? Crawford said Schuldich was leaving the country. Schuldich, where are you? What happened?~

    The two men took up posts closer to the door and the nurse ran a few routine tests for Ken's blood pressure and heart rate. No one said anything until she was gone and then Ouka gave Ken's hand a small pat. "They have good doctors here," she assured him. "They will take care of you."

    "I don't trust doctors," Ken sent back. "They're overrated."

    She shrugged. "As you like," she said, and subsided once more into silence. Her pink gaze lingered on him and Ken found it hard to look away.

    ~Could I marry her?~ he wondered. ~Could I spend the rest of my life married to her for the sake of Japan?~

    "How do I know you wouldn't try to kill me?" Ken asked, and Ouka tilted her head to one side in question. "My marrying you to save these people- how am I to know you wouldn't just kill me after all is said and done, so that I don't scheme against you?"

    She offered him a small smile. "We are both trapped by this," she said. "Do you understand? I cannot kill you because there are too many people that know you are alive. Farfarello will spread the word about you to protect you, and too many Matsumichis have died already for your people to handle the death of the survivor well. Besides, killing you doesn't mean I'll be all right, because now that everyone knows Mamoru is alive, they'll push for him as well. These people are being given a second chance to see everything set to rights again, and they'll fight the Takatoris in their weakened state to justify the crimes of past.

    "Likewise, you," and she pat his hand again, "cannot kill me, because there are enough people loyal to me that they'll get anxious if anything happens to me after our wedding. The lines have been fractured over these years and the only way to keep the peace and stability is if we both stay alive and healthy. We have to truly unite the lines. I'm willing to commit to such a thing for the sake of the empire. You don't strike me as being so selfish as to disagree."

    Ken wasn't really sure what to say to that. There was a part of him that was fussing that he couldn't possibly agree to such a thing. His life was his to live. He'd had his life dictated to him since he was born; everything had been manipulated to others' satisfaction. How could he let something like this- like the person he was to *marry*- be thrown on him in such a way? And yet… There was so much more at stake here than just him, than the two of them.

    "I'll think about it," he said at last. "I'll think about it."

    "Good." Ouka let go of him as the doctor came in. The man looked harried and tired, and there was already some blood on his coat. It made Ken think he'd been pulled off another patient to deal with this and he felt a moment's pity for the other patient until he saw the man's nametag. It was the doctor that had dealt with Schuldich, and Ken tried to keep his heart from flip flopping in his chest.

    ~That blood can't be Schuldich's because he was here two hours ago,~ he told himself. ~He's fine.~

    It didn't make him feel any better, though.

    Ouka answered the doctor's questions in Ken's stead, which he supposed was good. He couldn't even remember what excuse she gave him for the injury, as he was too tangled up in thoughts of Schuldich. The doctor cut away Ouka's bandages and the leg of his pants to give the injury a critical look. "Are you in pain?" he asked, looking directly at Ken.

    "It hurts like hell," he answered.

    The doctor nodded. "I would recommend moving you up to surgery to take care of this."

    Ken felt every muscle in his body lock at the thought of surgery. "No." He couldn't get the word out but his lips moved around it.

    The doctor offered him a serious look. "Your knee could suffer permanent damage if you-"

    Ken laughed sharply, cutting him off, and grabbed at the scissors the man had used on his pants. The two men at the far wall started forward but Ken ignored them, cutting through the material of his other pants leg. "Permanent damage?" he echoed bitterly. "Permanent damage? I hate surgeons and their promises of making things better!"

    He couldn't move enough to pull the leg down but the doctor saw what he wanted and obediently slid the material down to his ankle. Ouka leaned forward on her chair to eye Ken's brace and the doctor tested it with curious fingers. "They said I'd be walking again in just a few months, but they screwed it up and now look at it! I don't want surgeons anywhere near me!"

    The look the doctor gave him was sad, and the sincerity in the gaze managed to numb a little of Ken's anger. For a moment he felt Matsumichi Kentaro give way to Hidaka Ken and he struggled between the two as he stared back at the middle aged man. "I am truly sorry for this," he answered. "The doctors who did this failed our profession. But we have some of the best surgeons in the country in this hospital, and they will make sure you do not lose the use of your knee."

    "What happened to it?" Ouka wanted to know, pointing at the brace.

    "I broke the bone in three places playing soccer," Ken answered, forcing himself to look away from the doctor's eyes.

    "Maybe you will allow us to x-ray it when we are finished with your knee?" the doctor suggested. "There is no reason that should be a permanent disability. Let us look at it and see if we can fix it. Surely a second surgery and physical therapy can at least rid you of the need for the brace."

    Ken wasn't sure how to react to that, and he flicked the doctor a quick look. "Do I look like I can afford something like that?" he asked, trying to squish the surprise and hope that such a thing was possible.

    "We can," Ouka said. "It can be our wedding gift to you."

    "Why, don't want to marry a cripple?" Ken asked, flicking her a hooded look.

    She affected hurt. Ken decided she didn't have enough practice with the emotion to pull it off. "It will be a gift," she insisted, "and a sign of our goodwill. If you would kindly remember that we are near bankruptcy, then do you honestly think we would spend what's left of that on a surgery we didn't intend to make the most out of?" She flicked her fingers at the doctor. "You may write the bills to me. I will oversee it. I want him up and walking on both legs in the future."

    The doctor inclined his head to her. "I will prepare things to get him moved to surgery, if you will excuse me for a moment."

    She nodded dismissively and he left. He was only gone for a few minutes and then he was back with two other doctors and a gurney. The two body guards helped and the five men moved Ken from the mattress to the gurney without jarring his knee too badly. Ken watched the ceiling as they rolled him towards the door before deciding that it hurt to watch the fluorescent lights roll by, and he let his head loll to one side.

    And so it was that as he was wheeled down the hall to the elevators, he spotted Hibino Nanami sitting in one of the other rooms. Their gazes met for just a moment and her phone was at her ear, and she offered him a chilling little smile. It lasted just a second and then she was out of sight, and Ken hoped he hadn't reacted visibly to seeing her. Ouka had her own phone out and he drowned out her voice as they rolled him onto the elevator.


    Farfarello almost took the hinge off the door when he returned to his apartment, and his abrupt reentrance made both Yohji and Nagi jump. He smelled like blood and there were rips down the side of his outfit. He was only two feet in when he noticed the red-haired stranger off to his side and he turned on the other man, expression cold. Ran regarded him with disinterest, one hand resting heavily on the hilt of his sword, and Schuldich pushed himself to a standing position between them.

    "I don't know you," Farfarello said.

    "This is Red," Schuldich returned. "He's one of Crawford's."

    "I didn't invite him."

    "I don't care."

    "Where's Asuka?" Nagi wanted to know, beating Yohji to the question. "What happened?"

    "There was a difference of opinions," was the Irishman's answer, and he pried the buttons on his shirt free as he started for the hallway. He shrugged his shirt off as he went and Schuldich saw blood staining his pale flesh. More interesting than the blood were the lines of scars that ran their way down his back. "There's a clean-up crew trying to make seven bodies disappear before the police find them. Asuka took a different way back."

    "And Tot?" Omi asked, lifting his voice as Farfarello disappeared into his bedroom. Drawers creaked and slammed and the man came back with a towel to the gash on his arm and a shirt in his hand. Schuldich lamented the distance between the gash and his throat; whoever had managed to cut the Irishman should have aimed about eight inches higher.

    "She is at the Magic Bus."

    "Such a pity," Schuldich mused.

    Farfarello ignored him, tossing the towel to one side. He pulled his shirt on without bothering to bandage the cut, apparently deciding that it wasn't big enough to worry about. "Takatori had a proposition for our group," he announced. "He wants Ken to marry Ouka."

    The reactions around the room would have amused Schuldich if he'd been able to pay attention to them. Omi didn't look overly surprised, whereas Nagi looked resigned and Yohji was startled. Ran, to his side, said nothing, and Schuldich himself…? "He can't marry her," he said. The idea was ridiculous. "She's in no shape to marry anyone."

    "Note to Mastermind: you don't have a say in what happens in Ken's life," Nagi threw him.

    "Fuck you, rat. You know as well as I do that Ken can't marry someone like her. Trust me when I say that you have no clue what a mind job she is."

    "You've known Ken for a grand total of six days and your purpose with him was not what you led him to believe it was," Nagi sent back easily. "Let me repeat that you knew him for six days. We grew up with him. We know what he's capable of doing and adapting to."

    "It's a viable option," Omi added.

    Schuldich eyed them. "Are you both insane?"

    "What's it matter to you?" Yohji demanded, flicking him a sharp look. "He's just another project of yours. You don't have an opinion or say in the matter, or a right to get riled up about it."

    Schuldich would never be able to explain why those words pissed him off, and he decided it safest not to try to figure it out. "Suck my left nut, Kudou. I'm a master at putting people's lives together and taking them apart, and I don't need more than six days to know that the fact that you're even considering a deal like this happen means you're all cracked on far deeper levels than I previously suspected. Ouka is batshit insane and everyone knows it."

    Farfarello's phone began to ring then and he turned away, tuning out the argument to answer it. "What is it?" He went quiet to listen, and a few moments later offered up a "Fine then. We're coming." He hung up and turned towards the door, pinning Schuldich with a cold look. "We're leaving."

    "And going…?" Schuldich pressed.

    "Ken just showed up in the Magic Bus Hospital and is being admitted to surgery. You're the only one of us that could pretend to have a reason to be on that floor. Let's go. I want everyone else up and out of here and where we can reach them. Kudou, Naoe, wait on Asuka and come to the hospital with her. You three," and he glanced at the others, "are coming with me."

    There were no arguments. Schuldich followed after Farfarello into the hall and Ran followed easily behind him, letting Omi take up the rear. They went down the hall and outside to where a black car was parked, and Crawford's two took the back seat while Omi rode passenger. The ride to the hospital was silent but it wasn't quite a tense silence, and Farfarello found them a spot in the parking garage as his phone rang again. He answered it as he cut the engine off and the other three waited until he hung up before moving.

    "The Takatoris are all here," Farfarello said. "The father and brothers have shown up to keep an eye on their daughter and the Matsumichi heir. You," and he met Schuldich's gaze on the rearview mirror, "are going up to surgery. It's the fifth floor. The doctor that saw you earlier will be waiting and will let you in."

    "And then what?" Schuldich pressed.

    "You're going to find them," Farfarello answered easily. "We'll wait here. I'd rather not start a war in a hospital if it's at all possible."

    "Ah, so you do have some regard for human life. Fantastic." Schuldich reached out, brushing his fingers lightly to Ran's cheek, and let himself out of the car. It was insane to be told to walk into a hospital when the Takatoris were there, regardless of the fact that they didn't know who he was. They were bound to be twitchy about having any visitors, and Schuldich wasn't looking forward to getting anywhere near them. But somehow thoughts of checking on Ken and finding out just what the hell he was doing in surgery overrode that concern and he slammed the car door behind himself and started for the garage exit.

    He was almost there when another door opened and closed, and Schuldich looked back as Omi started after him. He waited for the other to catch up and Omi came to a stop in front of him, hands in his pockets. The blue eyes that considered him weren't the eyes that had laughed with Ken this past week or feigned hurt; they were the eyes that had watched the crowd from his perch on his dais. They were the eyes of Takatori Mamoru, a youth who had always known what sort of power was at his fingertips.

    "I want to know why," Omi told him, voice smooth. "I want to know what's in this for you besides fear of your own safety. I want to know why you were arguing against us back there, because I, unlike Nagi, can almost feel myself inclined to believe it was sincere. Tell me why I'm supposed to trust you with the fate of Japan's empire by letting you walk in there alone. Tell me why I'm supposed to believe that you won't screw this up."

    Schuldich stared back at him, trying to come up with a smart ass reply, and then he realized that that sort of response might just very well get him killed. He felt the automatic smirk fade from his lips as he stared back in silence and he passed the "why?" onto himself to be examined and answered.

    At last he found it, and he wondered if he was supposed to say it aloud. In the end he decided to. In part it was because he realized that the answer was for Omi and Omi alone, and that it wouldn't go further than the youth. In part it was because he knew Omi wouldn't let him walk into that hospital unless he thought he could believe him. And in part it was because he needed to hear it out loud to have it start to make any sense at all to himself.

    "He believed," he said at last. "He believed I was something better than what I was. There for just a week and he'd had it all explained to him, and he still went out on a limb and wanted to believe that it was something real. And he said… 'welcome home'."

    Omi said nothing and Schuldich didn't want to wait for a response. He turned away and finished the trek to the curb, and Omi didn't call him back. There weren't cars coming so Schuldich took the crosswalk across to the sidewalk in front of the hospital, and he didn't let himself pause before he stepped through the doors inside. He turned his answer to Omi over in his head, dissecting it, as he waited on the elevators, and compared it against the risk he was taking by approaching Ken and the Takatoris right now. Ken couldn't be happy with him after the way that he'd left, and Schuldich didn't blame him.

    But that didn't mean he could walk away, so he pressed the button for surgery and watched his reflection on the elevator walls as he was carried to the fifth floor.

    He was not looking forward to seeing Ouka again, and idly he wondered if she'd changed much in the past few years.

    He wondered if she'd even remember him.

Part 17
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