Patterns of Blood ~ Mami's fanfics

      "I find this somewhat anticlimactic."

      Ken went still where he was tracing invisible lines on the wall. He'd heard his cell door open, but he'd ignored it. The guards came by so often that he'd started tuning their visits out. All they wanted was to fuss at him for being such a troublemaker or to drag him off to meals. He had no use for them, just as they lacked any real interest in him. They were frustrated by his presence, since the circumstances of his incarceration meant they had limited authority over him. He was one of their prisoners, but the guards had been informed that they were merely holding on to him for a time, until those with real jurisdiction over him stopped by to pick him up.

      That voice, though, did not belong to any of the guards.

      "They finally catch you?" he asked, rolling over onto his other side so he could see the man standing in the doorway. Crawford looked faintly amused by the prospect. Ken wondered how he could look amused and so insufferably arrogant in the same breath. He had to have cultivated that look over years. "What are you doing here, then?"

      "I was passing by," was the dry response. "The guards have given me permission to take you on a walk around the grounds."

      Ken considered that, wondering if it was a trap. A year or two ago, it would have been an obvious yes, but ever since Mamoru had taken Kritiker's throne, things weren't so certain anymore. Ken had never thought that Schwarz could be one of those uncertainties, but then, he'd never expected to see them showing up following Mamoru's lead at Koua Academy. Mamoru had never given them a satisfactory explanation for that, but then, Mamoru didn't answer to them anymore.

      "What, no cliché 'I'm not going to hurt you' speeches?" Ken asked. Crawford just quirked an eyebrow at that and Ken shrugged in response. "Yeah, whatever," he said, and Crawford stepped further into the room to get out of the doorway. A guard came in past him and crossed the room to take Ken's cuffs off. Ken ignored the man's quiet warning and sat up, rubbing a little at his ankles to try and work blood back into them. He had a red line across both where the metal had been on a little too tight. He got to his feet, watching the way the guard backed off a bit, and crossed the room towards Crawford.

      Crawford led the way out of there, and Ken thought it telling that none of the guards followed them down the hall. They drew glances from prisoners as they passed and Ken offered mocking salutes to a couple, only to get rude words and gestures in response. It was hard being so popular, sometimes.

      It had been a week since they'd last let him outside. Behind such thick walls and the even thicker thorns of his thoughts, Ken had forgotten that it was spring. The air was so crisp that he could taste it on his tongue, like beer and sweets and hanami. The breeze smelled like cherry blossoms, even though no sakura trees grew on prison grounds. For a fleeting moment, Ken felt a viciously painful twist of nostalgia, but he forcibly crushed that. Times had changed; they'd all changed. They'd lost so much and there wasn't a way they could ever go back. All there was left to do was move forward, as soon as his feet found the path he was supposed to follow.

      Crawford stayed near the buildings, likely because the courtyard was full of prisoners out on their breaks. Ken trailed behind him down the length of the wall. When Crawford stopped, Ken propped himself up against the wall and turned an expectant look on the foreign psychic.

      "Why were you passing by?" he asked.

      "Why not?" Crawford asked.

      Ken supposed it was a valid answer and studied the other man's face. Crawford looked older than Ken remembered, not that he'd really ever seen much of the man. He wondered if those years had left their mark on his skin just like they had scarred his mind. The past three years had felt like an eternity between fighting Estet, watching Weiß implode, and his own impending insanity.

      "How long are you intending on staying here?" Crawford asked.

      "I didn't put me here," Ken pointed out. "I just had nowhere else to go."

      Crawford's mouth twitched at that, just the hint of a smile that never formed. "Abyssinian already left."

      "He was ready to go," Ken said, waving a hand in dismissal. Belatedly he realized what that said about him, so he added, "I'm still looking for something." He tilted his head to one side, gazing past Crawford towards the fence. "I'm just not sure what," he admitted without knowing why.

      "Convenient," Crawford said, drawing Ken's attention back to his face. "It so happens that I am searching for something as well."

      Ken folded his arms over his chest and arched an eyebrow at Crawford. "Oh?"

      "Takatori has a contract with my telekinetic," Crawford answered. "Schwarz is down a man."

      Ken gazed back at him, waiting for the rest of that story. When the silence stretched on, he realized that was it- and a heartbeat later, realized what Crawford was getting at. A second brow joined the first and he stared at the precognitive. "You can't be serious," he said. "You can't have seriously come all the way here and gotten me out of my cell so you could bid on me."

      "Why not?" Crawford returned smoothly, expecting Ken's disbelief.

      "Because I'm Weiß."

      "Were," Crawford corrected him a little too easily. "You were Weiß. After Koua fell, you realized you didn't know what you were anymore, so Takatori put you here until you could sort things out again. Tell me, Hidaka, what you think he'll do with you if you can't figure things out and come back into his fold."

      "I knew that when I agreed to come here," Ken answered. "We talked about it."

      "You've been here for four months," Crawford said. Ken wondered if that was the truth. It felt like he'd been here forever, but at the same time, it felt like it had only been a couple days. Time was such a blur here when his thoughts refused to untangle themselves back to what he knew they needed to be. Still, four months was a lot longer than he'd expected it to be. "How long do you think he intends to wait on you to catch up to reality?" Ken didn't respond to that. Crawford tried a different tactic. "Why do you think I waited until now to come?"

      "You couldn't get any of your first choices to say yes," Ken guessed.

      "Tomorrow Takatori is officially erasing your files."

      Ken felt like someone had punched him in the gut. Crawford inclined his head, an acknowledgment of how unexpected that announcement was. "You're still hesitating in the doorway," he said. "You're still halfway between who you are and who he wants you to be. The fact that you've been here for so long with no improvement means that he doesn't have the control over you he needs. He has to recognize that he's lost his Siberian, and now he must fully replace you. He cannot continue to fund your asylum here if you won't keep your end up."

      Ken's initial reaction was one of disbelief. He told himself Crawford was just making this up to manipulate him and the situation, but he knew deep down that it was the truth. He thought wildly that he should call Mamoru up and let him know that he was back to his old self, that he was ready to be the justice-driven Siberian once more. That idea died as soon as it formed. He wasn't Siberian anymore. As soon as the missions started again, and the killing started again, Mamoru would know.

      Four months of trying to clear his head, and he'd never realized just what piss-poor progress he'd made until now. When he laughed, he could hear it in his voice: that darkness that had started eating him alive in Kyoto. He rubbed at his forehead. "So that's it," he concluded. "Everything I've given them, everything I've lost for them, and now I'll be executed."

      Crawford put a hand against the wall beside his head. "Only if you continue to lie to yourself that you're going to 'get better'," he said.

      Ken stared at him from between his fingers, wondering how Crawford could possibly be serious, wondering how he could even start to consider such an offer. "You're Schwarz," he pointed out bluntly.

      "The accusation in that sounds so hypocritical," Crawford said. "We are no different in the end, Hidaka. We knew who and what you were years ago. We could all see it in you. It was inevitable once they handed you your claws. When you drown yourself so deep in death and blood, of course it's going to scar. Of course it's going to infect you and rip away everything else you could be."

      "You kill innocent people."

      "Innocence is a filthy word," Crawford responded, "and who gave you that notion, anyway?" Ken frowned at him, not understanding. "We are a group of bodyguards and assassins. We work for power-hungry politicians and corrupt men. We kill who we need to kill so that they can advance. Tell me how often these so-called innocents are the ones standing in our clients' ways."

      Ken opened his mouth to refute that and found he didn't have an argument. He told himself to stop listening to Crawford, but it was impossible to tune the other man out and his legs refused to let him walk away from there.

      "You're going to kill one way or another," Crawford continued. "Whether you lie to Takatori to get a pass free of here or you come home with me, you're going to kill. Under his lead, you'll always be living a lie, so close to the deaths you want but so far from the release you need. With us, you will never have to pretend. How could any of us judge you?"

      Ken said nothing to that for a long minute. He had to look away from Crawford's face, gaze shying away from eyes that knew far too much about him. Crawford said nothing about the delay, content to wait.

      "Why?" Ken asked at last. "Why are you even trying to convince me?"

      "First and foremost, because it is a waste of talent to let Takatori execute you," Crawford answered. "You already know what Schwarz is, so we would not have to waste time on explanations. You have a proven track record of working in a four-man team. Your style of killing is close enough to Farfarello's that we are prepared to work with it. We already understand your personality, so you would not be an unknown factor to work around. We have a lot of work to do; we would prefer to get started on it as soon as possible. You are the most obvious choice when we know you can hit the ground running."

      "First and foremost," Ken said slowly, because he needed time to think about that. Crawford's explanation made sense when he almost didn't want it to. "And the secondary reason?"

      Crawford's mouth twitched again. Ken looked back at him, studying the way Crawford didn't stop the expression this time. It used to be a bad thing when they saw any of Schwarz smirking, but Ken wasn't intimidated by them anymore. He still was curious as to what had spurred that particular look, though, and he lifted his gaze to Crawford's face.

      "We will call it personal interest, for now," Crawford said. Ken frowned at that, confused. "You will understand in time," the American assured him, sounding supremely confident. "Everything happens in due time."

      "If you're so sure it'll happen, then why are you even asking me if I want to join you?" Ken asked. "Haven't you already seen my response?"

      "I have," Crawford agreed easily. "Still, it is only courteous to discuss the offer with you."

      "Your teammates beat that consideration into you?"

      "Schuldig does not appreciate having his future spelled out to him," Crawford said with the slightest shrug of one shoulder. "We have all learned to compromise."

      "Yeah?" Ken asked. "And I suppose Schuldig and Farfarello are thrilled that they're going to have me in their midst."

      "I don't think you understand just how long ago I discussed this option with them. They have had ample time to get used to the idea."

      "Yeahhh," Ken said slowly. "Don't tell me, because it might creep me out."

      "You said it as a positive," Crawford told him. "'That they're going to'," he quoted back.

      Ken hesitated, wondering if he'd really worded it that way. He had. He thought he should take it back, or tell Crawford that it was a slip of his tongue. He stayed silent instead, working through his options. Either he could stay here and let Mamoru sign his death sentence tomorrow, or he could leave here with Crawford. Staying was dying; leaving was accepting that he was a twisted, psychotic murderer. The thought made him chuckle and he rubbed at his forehead some more.

      Crawford relaxed his arm a bit so he could step closer. "Stop fighting it," Crawford advised him.

      "Easy for you to say."

      "Is it?" Crawford queried. "We have already come to this ledge and chosen to step off it. It does not matter that the choice was not ours originally. All that matters is that we had a say in whether or not we were going to crumble when we found out what we truly are."

      Ken didn't answer that. Something moved in his peripheral vision and he glanced past Crawford toward the fence. Two figures had come up on the other side and were relaxing against the iron links. It had been months since he'd last seen them, but Ken could never forget those faces.

      You coming or what? Schuldig's voice came, somewhere between his fingers and his temple. I'm starving and Crawford's making us wait on you before we can get some food. You have enough experience with angst and self-doubt that you can multitask and do that over dinner.

      Ken laughed. The sound startled him; maybe it startled Schuldig as well. "Yeah," he said, unsure if he was answering Schuldig or Crawford or both of them. He couldn't help but think he was out of his mind for actually taking a chance on this, but he didn't have it in him to stay and die here on Mamoru's say-so. Kritiker had made him into this; let Kritiker live with the consequences. He wasn't their game to start and stop and terminate just because he wasn't up to their standards anymore. "Yeah. Let's get out of here."

      "Good," Crawford said, with a quiet approval Ken hadn't heard from anyone since they'd first left Tokyo years ago. It still took him a moment more before he stepped back away from Ken, and then he started for the fence.

      "You think they'll actually just let us leave?" Ken asked, following after him.

      "Do you think they could stop us?" Crawford returned easily. "And before you can ask about security, Nagi has already disabled it. He knew of our plans for you before he even knew he would be transferring to Kritiker. Before we released him from our team, we made it clear that he had this final job to run for us. When Kritiker comes looking for you tomorrow, they will find no trace of you here, nor any evidence as to how you broke free."

      "As if they'll just let me go," Ken pointed out.

      Crawford slid him a sideways look. "We are Schwarz," he pointed out, and Ken felt an odd little tingle when he realized he was included in that 'we'.

      Let them try and come for you, Schuldig added, sounding darkly amused. They were close enough to the fence now that Ken could see the vicious, toothy smile on Schuldig's face. They won't stand a chance. Eventually they'll do the math and realize they stand to lose a lot more by coming at us than they do by letting you go. Only one on their side who could try is Nagi, and he'll never take a job against us.

      Glad to know you care,
Ken said dryly.

      You think Crawford would let us let you get hurt? Not likely, Schuldig returned, quirking an eyebrow at him. He beckoned to the guards, and one moved to open the gate for them. Ken took in the unfocused look on the guard's face as they passed. It had been so long since he'd seen Schuldig's handiwork up close that he'd forgotten how creepy it could be. You'll get used to it.

      I suppose. What does that mean, about Crawford?

      Figure out your issues on your own, kid. I'm sure as hell not getting into the mess that is Crawford's personal life.

      "Enough, Schuldig," Crawford said. Ken wondered if the man could hear them or if he just knew from the silence and the look on the telepath's face that there was a conversation going on out of his reach. Schuldig offered the precognitive a wolfish grin in response and held his hands up in self-defense.

      Personal; Crawford had already written Ken off as personal interest. Ken didn't understand, but he let it slide for now. He glanced from Schuldig to Farfarello as the gate closed behind him, taking in the amusement on one man's face and the bored tolerance on the other. He looked over at Crawford last and studied the almost arrogant satisfaction that gleamed in Crawford's eyes.

      For one, fleeting moment, he thought he understood, but that passed, buried under the thought that this was a terrible mistake. He held on to that feeling for just a second, turning it this way and that, and then let it go completely.

      To hell with it, he thought, and he'd never felt so free.


      Ken had almost talked himself into believing that Schwarz lived in black palace of death, maybe with a few skeletons and coffins for show or companionship. The reality was far different and almost twice as disturbing, simply because it was so normal. Normal except for the price tag, really, because Schwarz lived in a four-bedroom penthouse apartment in Roppongi. Ken supposed he shouldn't be surprised by the location. At least it meant the three could go shopping without being gaped at by curious natives. Ken felt like more of a tourist than they did, since he'd never seen so many foreigners in one place before. He hadn't been through Roppongi in years and it had exploded in his absence.

      He was handed a keychain on his way into the lobby of their apartment building. He guessed it used to be Nagi's and idly wondered where the telekinetic lived now that he was working for Mamoru full-time. Two keys hung off the metal chain, clanking lightly against each other and a card. The card got them into the building, so he guessed the keys were for the postal box and the apartment door itself.

      The security guard at the desk greeted them with easy politeness and they rode the elevator up in silence. Ken tried not to think about how surreal it was to be stuffed in a small elevator with Schwarz, but such thoughts were inevitable. He should have been frightened. He would have settled for wary caution. Either emotion would have told him that his common sense hadn't disappeared along with his crumbling sanity. Neither put in an appearance, however, and he was left with a calm sort of curiosity. He glanced from one man to the other, studying them like he hadn't had much of a chance to see them before. Schwarz was always moving, always busy, in and out without wasted seconds. Now they were right within reach, off-duty and human.

      Crawford looked the same as always, dressed up in his pretentious suit that stuck out like a sore thumb. Schuldig and Farfarello, who hadn't had to bother with appearances today, were dressed down, not that Ken had ever seen them fancied up outside of Estet's failed ceremony. Still, seeing them in jeans was odd. It made him wonder if Crawford ever wore casual clothes. He slanted another look Crawford's way, trying to imagine it, and the ridiculousness of it almost made him smirk.

      Schwarz's apartment took up the entire twenty-third floor, with their door on the left labeled with a simple star. Crawford let them in and was the first inside. Schuldig and Farfarello followed, and Ken hesitated in the doorway when he noticed them toeing out of their shoes. The ease with which they did it told him it was habit and not a show they were putting on for him. He was perplexed to see foreigners following such a custom, and more-so by the sight of slippers waiting on the step. Schwarz had stepped into theirs and continued on inside, leaving one pair behind. The shoes weren't small enough to have been Nagi's, so Ken closed the door behind him and invited himself to use the pair.

      The hallway was short and emptied into a den, and Ken forgot that he was supposed to be playing it cool. He stopped a foot into the room and stared. The den itself was bigger than his apartment at the Koneko had been. It was closer in size to the shop itself, if one counted the storefront and backroom together. It came off looking like a showroom, really, with matching plush furniture and expensive rugs. The grand piano in the corner did nothing to quash that impression and Ken dizzily wondered which of the psychotic assassins had bothered to pick up that talent. He felt distinctly out of place, both as an ex-florist and a scraggy ex-prisoner still dressed in his nondescript jail uniform.

      The far wall was all windows. Schuldig was busy tugging cords to open the blinds, not so much to show off the breathtaking view but so he could open the windows and let air circulate. Ken felt like he could see all of Tokyo and shuffled across the room to get a better look. A sliding glass door led out to a balcony, but somehow the railing didn't detract from the view. He could only imagine what it would look like at night when the district lit up with neon entertainment. He undid the lock and slid the door open. The cool early evening breeze swept over his face and he leaned out, considering the view for a long minute.

      "So, apparently you're rich," Ken said as he finally slid the door shut.

      "You can thank Crawford for that," Schuldig returned, finishing with the last window. He stuck his fingers out and waggled them, enjoying the feel of the wind on his skin. "He drives a hell of a bargain with the higher-ups."

      Crawford quirked an eyebrow at the telepath. "Schwarz earned this through the combined actions of all of its members. I was simply the one who gave the cabinet an appropriate price tag for our work."

      Schuldig offered him a crooked smirk, accepting Crawford's acknowledgment of his contributions to their current wealth. Ken didn't understand and looked from one to the other. He didn't have to ask; Crawford expected that confusion and explained. "Estet and Rosenkreuz had a long and tangled history which was as damaging as it was profitable. Estet's developments in Japan and greed for eternal life tilted the balance more toward the former and increased the need to cut ties. With my team's go-ahead, I approached Rosenkreuz's cabinet and volunteered us for the job."

      "Took four and a half years," Schuldig said, considering the view. His gaze was distant as he thought back on such a dangerous project and his expression was finally closer to the malicious one Ken recognized. Such a timeframe horrified Ken, who was used to two- and three-week missions, but Schuldig had apparently enjoyed himself. Ken counted up the years on his fingers and figured the numbers made sense. Weiß had been in Tokyo for almost eight months now, then Kyoto for three years before that, and then there'd been the Estet and Takatori mess. Schwarz must have entered the country only a couple months before Weiß first ran across them.

      "As our reward, Schwarz has a monopoly on all business in Japan," Crawford concluded. "No other Rosenkreuz psychic may cut deals here until we relinquish that right."

      "And business is booming," Ken noted dryly.

      "Thus our need to contract a fourth man," Crawford agreed. "You and I will go over the paperwork later tonight."

      "There's actual paperwork involved?" Ken asked.

      "We need to establish boundaries and expectations, preferably before Farfarello takes you on a run tomorrow night." Crawford motioned toward the coffee table, which had a box resting on top of it. Ken refused to think about going anywhere with Farfarello alone, because teammates or not- oh hell, teammates- that was just weird. Instead he went to investigate the box. He caught the lid and gave it a small jiggle to pull it free.

      He sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth at the sight of his bugnuks. No, not his, because these ones were black. He dropped the lid off to one side without really noticing what he was doing anymore and pressed fingers hard against new leather. He pulled one glove free, running his fingertips over the slit openings for his blades, testing the feel of the metal release latch on the palm.

      Four months of drifting, of thinking, of slowly trying to work a way out of his shadows, and the sight of his gloves was enough to undo everything. He could already feel blood splattering across his face and lips, could already feel his heart pounding with the adrenaline of a mission. He slid his hand into the glove, shivering a little at how well it fit, how familiar a weight it was, at the pain of having been separated from this for four months. A hard clench of his hand snapped his blades free. They glinted in the overhead light. He could see his reflection on them and tilted the metal enough to see his eyes where they were dilated in anticipation and need.

      "And Takatori actually thought he was salvageable?" Schuldig asked Crawford. "It's a really good thing Farfarello's not the telepath. Ken would set him off in a heartbeat."

      Ken wasn't sure what broke his concentration more: the sound of Schuldig's voice, or the way Schuldig used his given name so easily. He was used to being "Weiß" and, infrequently, "Hidaka". He blinked down at his blades, a little confused as the bloodlust shattered and seeped away, and relaxed his hand. The blades snapped back into their sheaths and he peeled his glove off.

      "Ach, he's not listening," Schuldig muttered, but he sounded more amused than anything else. Ken glanced his way, studying the sly smile on Schuldig's mouth. The telepath wasn't looking at him; he was considering Crawford with a sideways look. Ken looked from one man to the other, but he didn't really see anything out of place. Crawford was wearing his usual serene expression as he watched Ken.

      "I will show you to your room," Crawford said, and added, "You will regret saying that, Schuldig."

      Schuldig's smile twitched wider into something blatantly mocking, but he obediently kept quiet. Ken gathered up his box and followed Crawford out of the room and down the back hall. The next room to branch off was the joint kitchen and dining room. Doors were ajar all the way down the hall, giving Ken glimpses of a rather expansive bathroom and the larger bedrooms. Ken's room was the second-to-last, an easy nine mats in size, and was already stocked with furniture.

      "I'm not really sure what Kritiker did with my clothes," Ken said as he eyed the walk-in closet across the room.

      "That will not be a problem," Crawford assured him. "You have appointments with tailors tomorrow so we can equip you with suits. While we are out, you will have a chance to fill in the rest of your wardrobe with whatever you deem necessary."

      Ken set his box on top of the dresser. "With whose money?" he asked, already knowing the answer but not really believing it. "I'm sure you could have found a cheaper hit man, or at least someone with fewer start-up costs."

      "I am sure I made the right decision," Crawford answered easily.

      Ken considered that in silence, studying Crawford, searching his expression for answers to questions he hadn't quite figured out yet. "I lied," he said. "I want to know after all. How long ago did you figure out you wanted me?"

      "For Schwarz?" Crawford clarified. Ken had the niggling feeling that that changed the entire question and its answer, but he wasn't ready to sort it out. He nodded. "We're approaching a year and a half now."

      Ken blinked at him, not sure whether or not to find that disturbing. "We were in Kyoto then."

      "As was Schwarz," Crawford said. "We had business there. That is how we were first able to approach Takatori and use Weiß in Europe. Schuldig was able to analyze you from a distance and see that you were finally sliding."

      Ken huffed a bit and eyed him. "I'm feeling manipulated."

      "Your madness is your own and genuine," Crawford replied. "We are simply opportunistic."

      There was a rap against the doorframe. Crawford was expecting his teammate and simply lifted his hand to flick his fingers in a beckon. Schuldig slipped past Crawford, holding clothes out to Ken in offering. Ken took them by the hangers and frowned down at the outfit, not understanding.

      "Loaners from Farfarello," Schuldig said. "We're not taking you to dinner looking like that."

      "From Farfarello?" Ken echoed, staring at the clothes in a bit of disbelief.

      "You do realize the rest of us are too tall for you," Schuldig returned, propping his arm on Crawford's shoulder. He had to stretch a little to do it, but there was the ease of long practice about it, and Crawford didn't seem to care that it was mussing his expensive suit. Ken glanced from one to the other and conceded the point. Schuldig wasn't all that much taller than him, but Ken's eyes didn't even reach Crawford's chin. The only thing one of Crawford's shirts would be good for was sleeping in, since it would swallow him whole.

      Schuldig's lips twitched into a slight smirk and he poked Crawford's chest a couple times. Crawford sent him a sideways look but said nothing about the jabs. Schuldig gave a short laugh and flicked his fingers at Ken. "I'm hungry," he said pointedly, and he and Crawford left to let Ken get dressed.

      Ken looked from the closed bedroom door to the clothes in his hands. It was strange to think Farfarello owned such nice things, but it was flat-out weird to have to wear them. He grimaced a bit and finally hooked the hangers over the doorknob. He shrugged out of his uniform and dropped the prison gear in the trash can by his desk. Farfarello was the closest to him in size and weight, but the outfit was still a bit too big on him. He tugged idly at the waistband of the black slacks, making sure they wouldn't slide off his hips, and smoothed the black shirt out some. In the end he decided neither was baggy enough to look bad and let himself out of the bedroom.

      Schwarz had scattered themselves around the living room to wait on him, and Ken hesitated in the doorway at the sight. For this to be a proper showroom, they should have been sitting straight and perfect like mannequins. Schuldig was sprawled on his stomach on the couch, however, with one leg and one arm dangling off the side. Farfarello was sitting cross-legged on one of the recliners with a giant pillow in his lap making a perch for his arms and chin. Crawford was standing behind the couch, leaning back against it with his hands curled around the edge to either side of him, as he considered the view. It put a bit of humanity back in such rich surroundings.

      "Do remember that we're a team of bloodthirsty bachelors," Schuldig said.

      "With a catalogue photo shoot apartment," Ken returned, not quite an accusation.

      "Our clients know where we live," Crawford said. "We must live up to their expectations and our reputation."

      "I'm sure the piano is real intimidating."

      "I wouldn't expect a jock to appreciate fine culture," Schuldig said, sitting up.

      Ken gaped at him. "It's yours?"

      "I suggest you re-hinge your jaw before I ask Farfarello to do it for you," the telepath said, sounding indignant. "It was a mandatory course at Rosenkreuz. We needed to be as well-rounded as possible, since we didn't know what our clients would need from us."

      Ken was past confused by now. He'd assumed Schwarz was made up of psychotic, psychic thugs. Classical music didn't fit into that anywhere. It certainly hadn't been a part of his own training. Hell, his had basically consisted of Kritiker handing him a weapon and teaching him how to use it. Weiß was simple that way. They had a clear-cut mission: go in, kill, get out. Schwarz was starting to sound like something else entirely when Weiß had always assumed they were the same.

      Geisha with guns? he thought dizzily. It made him wonder what they possibly expected from him.

      "Are you any good?" Ken asked at length, because that was an easier question to deal with.

      "I'm a hell of a lot better at it than Crawford is," Schuldig said.

      "Your narcissism is showing again," Crawford said mildly.

      "Pulsing in tune to your inferiority complex, I'm sure," Schuldig returned easily. Crawford relaxed his arm a little, just enough to lightly elbow his teammate in the head. Schuldig reached over his shoulder and bat at Crawford in retaliation.

      Ken looked from one to the other, startled by that easy interaction. Beneath that surprise was an unexpected twist of resentment and loss. He stared through the two at the wreck his team and teammates had become. How long had it been since things had been right with Weiß? How long had it been since the four of them could stand in the same room without it feeling so terribly awkward and strained? He could barely remember.

      Schuldig got to his feet as soon as Crawford moved his arm. The telepath jammed his hands in his pockets and cocked an eyebrow at Ken. "You go the path of the 'woe is me' and you're going to eat dinner by yourself. It'll ruin my appetite."

      Ken scowled at him, a little of his mental balance restored. "Shove off it."

      "Nostalgia has no place in Schwarz."

      "What, you don't miss anything, don't regret losing anything?" Ken asked. Schuldig's damnable smirk was enough of an answer. "What about Nagi?"

      "Why should I miss him?" Schuldig asked with a pitying look. "It's not like he's gone forever."

      Ken flicked a startled look at Crawford, who said, "His contract to Takatori is for the duration of one year. He has already served five months. He has no plans of renewing it and Kritiker does not have the means to convince him otherwise. They are more likely to let him go early."

      "Oh. Then I'll be here for seven months?" Ken deduced.

      "As if Cr-"

      "Schuldig," Crawford interrupted him neatly.

      Schuldig offered Ken a smile so wide it had to hurt his face. "In tonight's fine print you'll see a little tagline that says Schwarz is a lifetime commitment. There's no such thing as walking away." He shot Crawford a pointed look over his shoulder. "Better?"

      If Crawford answered that taunt, he did so mentally. Aloud, all he said was, "We are leaving."

      Despite the casual relationship between the pair of them, Schuldig didn't move until Crawford had already come around the couch and started for the door. No matter the personal opinions and relationships, the hierarchy was absolute and unquestionable. Crawford went first, then Schuldig. Ken figured he should go last as the youngest member on the team, Schwarz's kouhai of a sort, but Farfarello was in no hurry to get up. Ken wasn't interested in waiting on him, so he tagged along behind the older two. Farfarello caught up to him as he was stepping into his shoes but made no move to pass him.

      They'd driven from the prison to the apartment, but they walked to the restaurant. It was only a couple blocks away and Crawford's name was on the list. The place was pricey, but not "breathe and break the china" nice, so Ken wasn't as uncomfortable as he could have been. They had a booth in the back, thick wooden benches on either side of a heavyset table with a curtain sheltering them from the rest of the restaurant. The hostess poured them water and disappeared without another word. There wasn't a menu; Crawford had had to choose a set course when he'd made the reservation.

      It took only a couple minutes for the first course to be delivered, since the kitchen had been prepping for their seven o'clock arrival. Dinner was a quiet affair. Before Ken's incarceration, he'd hated silence. He was a man of action, not meditation. That was probably why his jail-time soul-searching had gone so poorly, was his lack of practice. Four months of little to do outside of exercising and thinking meant tonight's quiet was easy enough to bear. Ken didn't know what he'd say, anyway.

      He ended up staring at Farfarello more than was really healthy. He blamed it on Schwarz for putting the white-haired demon across from him, since it made it easy for Ken to stare. Farfarello caught him at it more than once. Ken expected some sort of threat or challenge, but Farfarello tolerated his curiosity in silence. This was a man who'd poured acid on priests and nuns years ago. Ken hadn't imagined he'd have a docile side.

      Schuldig clapped his hand over his mouth just in time to keep himself from spitting his water all over his dinner. His shoulders shook with silent laughter. Crawford didn't see anything out of the ordinary with such an outburst and kept eating. Farfarello slid his fiery-haired teammate a sideways look.

      It took Schuldig only a minute to get himself under control and he offered Ken a vicious smile. If you expect to live to twenty-five, kid, don't ever let him hear you say that. You're only fooled because you're not in his head.

      I'm not a kid,
Ken insisted. When Schuldig just looked at him, Ken asked, How old are you?

      Twenty-seven, for a little while longer,
was the response. Out loud, he drawled, "And Crawford is the big three-oh."

      Ken hadn't expected Schwarz to be that much older than him. He flicked Crawford a look, surprised by such a gap between their ages. Crawford was eyeing Schuldig over his glass of water. There was a coolness in his gaze that said he didn't appreciate that jab at his age. His telepathic teammate sent him an unrepentant grin in response: it was a familiar argument between them.

      "Farfarello's same as you," Schuldig said, putting the Irishman at a more comfortable twenty-two.

      That was as much a surprise as the difference between himself and Crawford. Ken blinked at Farfarello and asked, "What month?"

      Farfarello gazed back in silence. Ken had about decided he wasn't going to get an answer when the pale man said, "October."

      "Of course he's a fall baby," Schuldig said. "Ireland's so damn cold in the winter, parents had nothing better to do than stay inside and screw."

      Ken valiantly tried not to imagine Farfarello's parents having sex, especially since his mother had been a nun. "Oh," he said, deflating a little as he realized he really was the youngest man on his new team. He reassured himself with the reminder that Nagi would be back in a year. There was no way Nagi could pretend to be older than Ken was. "I'm December."

      Schuldig lifted a finger from his glass and pointed at Ken. "Kid."

      Ken scowled at him and gave up on the argument. The rest of the dinner passed in silence, but somehow it almost felt comfortable. Crawford paid at the register while the other three continued on outside. They'd been at dinner long enough that the night had well and truly fallen, not that Roppongi could look dark when there were so many lights. The air smelled of beer and cigarettes and exhaust, a city scent he'd somehow forgotten in the confines of his cell. He breathed in deep enough that he could taste the pollution on his tongue like dust.

      Schuldig held a hand out to Farfarello, who didn't bother to look at him. "No."

      "One," Schuldig suggested, an attempt at a compromise.

      Farfarello ignored him. Schuldig wagged his hand in an insistent demand, but Farfarello didn't seem to see it. Whatever Schuldig wanted from his teammate, he wasn't stupid enough to try and take it by force, and eventually he stuffed his hands in his pockets and muttered rude things under his breath. Blue eyes were almost glowing as neon lights danced across his face.

      "Crawford," he said as the American joined them.

      "No," was the smooth response, and Crawford didn't slow long enough to let Schuldig argue.

      "Asshole," Schuldig sent after him half-heartedly.

      "You said you were quitting."

      "I lied," Schuldig returned, trailing after his leader. "What else is new? It's your fault if you actually believed me."

      Crawford tuned him out and led them back to their building. They'd turned off the lights in the apartment on the way out, but it was bright when they returned, lit up from billboards that streamed multicolored, flashing lights through the windows. Ken toed into his house slippers at the front door, went straight across the room, and traded out one set of slippers for another as he stepped out onto the balcony. He leaned against the railing, staring out at the city with his heart in his throat. During the day, the city was just a city, washed-out black and off-white buildings with endless traffic. At night it was something else entirely, and at twenty-three stories off the ground, he had a perfect view.

      He wasn't sure how long he stood out there before he thought to look over his shoulder at the living room. Schwarz hadn't bothered to turn on the lights, content to use the psychedelic mess the city provided. Ken couldn't hear what they were saying over the sound of traffic, wind, and music, but he could see their hands and mouths moving. He studied them in silence and wondered what had happened to his grip on reality.

      "Schwarz," he muttered.

      Psychotic killers, or ruthlessly-ambitious psychics? Bloodthirsty, Schuldig had called them, and Ken supposed they were. But then, so was he. They lived day-to-day lives out of necessity, always thinking ahead to the next job, always thinking ahead to the next kill. Civilized brutality, though Ken wasn't sure how such a thing could possibly exist.

      He dragged his gaze across them: Farfarello's eternally-bored expression, Schuldig's laughing mockery, and Crawford's tolerant acceptance of his teammates' madness. He'd seen more of them today than he had in all of their past meetings put together. Those had been flicker-short bursts, a couple minutes here and there, short and brutal fights. The longest he'd ever been in the same room with them was that fight at the tower almost three years ago. Even that had been a relatively brief fight, cut short by the ground giving out beneath them.

      Now he'd just gone to dinner with them. It should have been awkward or tense or surreal or something, but it had felt… Normal, almost. They'd known for a year and a half that he was going to join their team, so they'd already mentally made room for him in their minds. They'd opened a slot, and he'd fallen neatly in.

      He turned away from them and looked down at his hands, imagining the weight of his gloves and the heat of blood against his palms. "I am Schwarz," he murmured, testing the way it sounded on his tongue.

      It sounded right.

      He knew he should be scared of what that said about him, of just how far he'd fallen, but he'd spent four months realizing that there wasn't a way out of his madness- four months realizing he didn't really want a way out. He didn't want to say goodbye to hunts and kills and the rush of a well-executed death. He thought about tomorrow night and his run with Farfarello. His earlier trepidation was nowhere to be found. All that was left in its wake was a tremor of excitement.

      He left the city behind him and joined his teammates in the living room.

      They didn't go quiet as he intruded on their conversation and didn't tell him to leave. He invited himself to sit on the arm of the nearest chair and listened. As he did, he realized why dinner had been such a quiet affair. Schuldig had been scoping out the other guests at the restaurant, stocking up on names, faces, and business connections. It hadn't been pricey enough to attract the real bigwigs of the city, but it did attract some of their middle management.

      "-formally introduce him at some point," Schuldig was saying with a tilt of his head toward Ken. "General consensus was that he's our newest client, which means everyone's going to be trying to dig information up on him tonight."

      "They will not find anything," Crawford returned. "Kritiker erased him."

      "That's not going to reassure anyone. It'll just do the opposite."

      "Tomorrow will be enough," Crawford said. "It will take the better part of the day to equip him with what he needs. I have chosen places that are known for being less than discreet."

      Schuldig hummed a bit at that and eyed Ken. At length he shrugged, deferring to Crawford's judgment, and dismissed himself without another word. Ken heard the fridge door open and close, closely followed by the distinctive snap of an aluminum can being popped open. Beer, Ken guessed.

      "We have paperwork to go over," Crawford told Ken, and Ken followed him down the hall. The last bedroom was the master bedroom, but apparently Crawford needed the extra space. His bedroom was one part bedroom and two parts office. The desk in Ken's room was small, since he wasn't bound to need it for much, but Crawford had a real corner desk. Everything on it was neatly organized and three calendars hung on the wall. Ken blinked when he realized they were for three different years: last year, this year, and next. That was vaguely disturbing.

      There were two chairs at the desk, so Ken settled in at Crawford's side and tried not to feel like he was in an executive's office. Crawford's computer didn't have a password; all it took was the tap of a key to bring the screen to life. Crawford pulled a thick folder down from one of the overhead cabinets and flipped through it. Ken saw names on the tabs, with his own on the last. Crawford pulled a small stack of paper out of Ken's section and turned it over. He motioned to the desk lamp in an invitation to use it. It was a touch-sensitive lamp, so Ken poked the base of it three times to get it on its brightest setting.

      He read the contract slowly, not really sure what to expect. It was three short paragraphs that basically said Schwarz was a life, not a job, and that the number one priority was Rosenkreuz's success and prosperity. Ken knew pathetically little about Rosenkreuz except that it produced psychic assassins, but there was a little footnote directing his attention to the next packet in the stack. He peeked under the top sheet and saw that the next batch of papers was an introduction to Rosenkreuz's history.

      The last bit of the contract stressed that Schwarz worked on an open-door policy. Ken basically read it to mean that, while Crawford's word was law, he had the right to tell Crawford if he had a problem with something they were doing. There was the chance Crawford would tell him to shut up and put up, but there was also a chance Crawford would alter the plan in some way.

      "Huh," Ken said when he was finished. There were two lines and an outline of a box at the bottom, but Ken didn't have his stamp anymore. Kritiker had confiscated everything of his before his incarceration. "Am I supposed to sign this?"

      "Three times," Crawford said. He had been working on something on the computer, but he turned on Ken now. A small cup to the right of his monitor had pens in it. He turned one over and pointed to the lines. "Kanji with furigana on the top line, Roman letters on the bottom."

      Ken did as he was told, though he had to think a bit on the romaji of his name. He pointed at the box when he was through. "And this?" Crawford produced a small pocket knife. Ken arched an eyebrow at him. "Now you're starting to sound like a bad movie."

      "This is standard," Crawford said, flicking it open. He held one hand out for Ken's. "Your left."

      Ken set his hand down on top of Crawford's, palm-up. Crawford slit a line across his skin and they watched as blood slowly pooled in his palm. Ken flexed and curled his hand some to help keep the blood moving. "You are to use your right index finger," Crawford said when a sufficient amount had gathered. Ken dabbed his finger in it, waited a moment to make sure he wouldn't drip anywhere else, and carefully rolled his finger on the paper to leave a red fingerprint in the box.

      "Congratulations," Crawford said. "You are officially part of Schwarz."

      "And on my way to hell faster than ever," Ken said, amused. He glanced around, but the box of tissues on Crawford's desk was out of reach. He lifted his hand to his mouth instead, giving the collected blood there a quick suck. It hit his tongue like tangy, sour memory, death and fire and acid. He ran his tongue along the cut once, then scrubbed at his skin with his thumb to try and dry it.

      Crawford was watching him. Ken offered him a small shrug. The American said nothing but reached past him to take his contract. He set it to one side where it could dry for another minute more. Ken looked at his stack of papers. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to read it here or to take it with him elsewhere so Crawford could work. In the end he stayed, in part because he wasn't sure if he'd have to sign anything else and in part because he didn't know if he'd have questions. Crawford didn't tell him to leave, so Ken made himself comfortable and worked his way through the packets one by one.

      The first was all about Rosenkreuz, detailing its history, purpose, and current status. It had thirty-nine teams now, and each was marked with stars and location. Schwarz was one of four teams that had earned a three-star status. Ken guessed more stars meant higher rank, considering Schwarz basically owned Japan now. The next thirty-nine pages were detailed profiles of the teams. Ken read the first few sheets, fascinated, then skimmed until he found Schwarz.

      Schwarz's members were listed in the order they'd joined the team. Crawford and Schuldig had the same date beside their names, but Crawford was first due to his rank. Ken stared at the year beside it, wondering if there was a mistake. At dinner Schuldig had declared himself to be twenty-seven, almost twenty-eight. For this paperwork to be right, Schwarz had been formed when Schuldig was a baby.

      "Hey," he said, interrupting Crawford to show him the numbers. "What?"

      "Schuldig set our futures in stone when he was born," Crawford said. "He and I were born on the same day, only three years apart. It is a rare occurrence at Rosenkreuz, but experience shows that psychics who share days have a strong connection. Rosenkreuz makes efforts to team them up."

      "You grew up together," Ken concluded, looking down at the paper again. No wonder the two were so close; they were twisted brothers of a sort.

      He skimmed down the line to Nagi's name. There was a note in Nagi's small section that detailed his contract to Kritiker. Crawford had said Nagi was with Mamoru for a year but had hinted at it ending early. Apparently he'd meant it, because Nagi's contract had an ending date that was only three months from now. Below Nagi was Farfarello's bit, and Ken paused when he saw the last name on the list. There he was: Hidaka Ken, listed with today's date and his weapon of choice. He ran his fingers over it, trying to come to terms with the fact that yes, everyone had known he was going to end up here. He looked over at the calendars and saw his name there.

      "Weird," he said.

      "You will get used to it," Crawford said.

      Ken glanced down at his palm and the cut that still had blood beading up along it. "I don't really have a choice, do I?" he returned.

      "You already made it," Crawford answered.

      Ken nodded and went back to reading. He was finished in right under an hour. Crawford filed the packets where they belonged and Ken left him to finish up whatever he was working on. Ken drifted from one end of the apartment to the other and back again, idly wondering when this would start feeling familiar. Schuldig was drinking beer in the kitchen and said nothing about his exploration. Ken wasn't sure where Farfarello had gone, but he didn't feel curious enough to ask. At last he ended up in his room and found a pair of cotton sleeping pants there.

      He ignored them for now, more interested in studying his bugnuks. Thoughts of murder and blood kept him occupied for the rest of the evening, and he went to bed early that night.


      The entire day had been leading up to this. He'd spent most of the morning and afternoon following Crawford from place to place, buying everything he'd need for his new life, and the nighttime run was his reward for the world's longest shopping trip. By the time he left, he didn't really care that he was going out alone with Farfarello. All that mattered was that he had his gloves in a bag slung over his shoulder and a very simple mission order ringing in his ears:

      "Kill everything that moves."

      Schuldig eyed the two: Ken where he was waiting impatiently by the door, and Farfarello where he was strapping the last knife into place. "You sure I don't need to drive?" he asked dubiously. "If they wreck my car because they're too trippy to pay attention to the road, there's going to be hell to pay."

      Crawford, who had already answered two variations of the same argument, said nothing.

      Farfarello finished up his preparations and took the keys from Schuldig's outstretched hand. "We're leaving."

      Ken was the first into the hall and he summoned the elevator with the press of a button. They had to wait a minute for it to make it all the way up to the twenty-third floor. They picked up a couple unwelcome guests on the eighteenth and fourth floors. The crowd pushed them into the back of the elevator, but they cut past everyone on the bottom floor and were the first two out the lobby doors. The parking garage was two buildings down, with the three bottom floors reserved for residents of their apartment building. Ken slipped into the passenger seat of Schuldig's car and Farfarello got them on the road almost before Ken managed to buckle.

      Kill kill kill.

      Ken didn't know where they were going, or whose people they were going to be decimating, or why. He hadn't asked, because he didn't want to know. There was a chance he wasn't going to like the answer, and if he didn't like the answer, it'd make the run harder. It was simpler when he could view it in stark shades of black and white: kill or protect. Crawford said these men and women tonight had to die, so Ken would deliver. It was that simple. Ken hoped it would always be that simple.

      He had his gloves on long before they reached the warehouse. Farfarello parked down the street and they walked the rest of the way. They were almost there when Farfarello spoke. "South, bottom two," he said, and he disappeared into the shadows.

      Ken sped up into a jog, following signs to the south entrance. He passed a small group of security guards. His claws were out when he was halfway to them and he broke into a run, hurtling toward them with a speed born of hunger. The sound it made when his blades tore through cloth and skin and bone was so familiar it made him dizzy. He dug a foot into the ground, spinning himself around, blades flashing in the scant light from a faraway lamppost. Dim or not, there was still more than enough light to see the damage he was wreaking on their bodies.

      The men barely had time for more than a gurgle and two choked cries of pain before all three were dead. Ken shuddered, gasping for breath even though the fight had been short. He felt like an addict, who, at the brink of being cured of his addiction, had just been sharply reintroduced to his drug of choice. It ate its way through his mind and body with a need that was positively painful.

      He took a stumbling step forward, then another. I am Schwarz.

      It took five steps to get his mental balance back and then he was slipping through the shadows effortlessly, looking for any signs of life. He worked his way across the first floor, one end to the other, and then did the same sweep of the second. He killed everyone he found, and the more he killed, the more level he felt. By the time he made it to the last room, he was breathing normally and feeling wonderfully sated. He was also completely soaked in blood and gore.

      Farfarello was waiting for him, sitting backward in a metal folding chair. Ken stopped in the doorway to consider him, studying blood-painted alabaster skin. He recognized the satisfied set in Farfarello's shoulders and the bloody hunger in the foreigner's one eye; he knew Farfarello was staring at the same things in Ken himself.

      "Oh," Farfarello mused. "So he does understand, after all."

      "You didn't believe them?" Ken asked.

      "I do not trust bias," Farfarello answered, pushing himself to his feet in a lithe move. His lips twitched in a lazy smile that only half-formed before it disappeared again. It looked a little too much like mockery to be reassuring, but Ken didn't think the emotion was pointed at either of them. The Irishman started for the door and Ken moved to let him out. They walked back to the car side by side with an odd quiet hanging between them.

      Understanding, Ken thought, rolling the notion around. Wasn't that what he wanted? No matter what he'd told himself at prison, the truth was that he didn't want to get better. He loved what he did. It was that no one else around him could appreciate it the way he did. Yohji had grown morosely reluctant to do any work. Aya had resigned himself to his fate and come to terms with the necessity of his job. Mamoru had thrown away his heart for the sake of a peaceful future he strongly believed in.

      What Ken had become couldn't possibly stand in the same room as any of them. He'd never been able to stand beside someone like this, drenched in blood and death, and feel that the person beside him perfectly understood what he felt. But Farfarello and Schuldig and Crawford all understood.

      Ken started laughing; he couldn't help it. Farfarello sent him a sideways look but said nothing, probably used to psychotic outbursts when he lived with Schuldig. Ken managed to get himself under control by the time they made it to the car. Farfarello turned on the radio for the ride back and Ken flipped stations in search of something good to listen to, something hard and violent that would match their moods.

      Schuldig was waiting in the parking garage when they made it back. Two buckets of water were full to the brim. Ken took one and Farfarello the other, and they upended the buckets over their heads. Ken hissed a bit at how cold it was, earning a taunting smirk from Schuldig. The telepath held out black towels next and they mopped themselves up, wiping up bloody water. They used the towels on the leather upholstery next, soaking up what they could.

      Farfarello popped the trunk, revealing long trench coats, and the two slipped into them to hide their wet clothes from curious passer-bys. They tucked the towels in their buckets, closed the car up, and followed Schuldig away. They made it back to the apartment without getting stopped. Schuldig waited until the elevator doors had closed before quirking an eyebrow at his teammates.


      "We can keep him," Farfarello answered.

      "He's a hard man to impress," Schuldig told Ken. "I'd feel lucky if I were you."

      "I didn't impress him," Ken returned. "I understand. It's the most crucial difference in the world." Schuldig considered him in silence, bright gaze distant. Ken frowned at him, not sure what that look in Schuldig's eyes was supposed to be. "Don't you think?"

      Schuldig smiled, but it was only half-there. "Who knows?" he asked with a breeziness Ken didn't believe. Ken didn't push it, knowing he wouldn't get a satisfactory answer.

      Schuldig hadn't bothered to lock the apartment door when he'd left, trusting Crawford to guard the place while he rendezvoused with his younger teammates. He was the first in and padded off down the hall in his slippers. Farfarello and Ken took turns cycling through the shower with Ken going first. When he left his bedroom in his sleeping pants, he was greeted by the sound of a piano. His first thought was that it had to be a CD, because normal people didn't play like that. Psychotic psychic assassins didn't either, for that matter. He crept down the hall, afraid whoever was playing would stop if there was an audience, and peered into the living room.

      It wasn't one person at the piano: it was two. Crawford and Schuldig sat at opposite ends of the bench, Crawford set up on the harmony and Schuldig on the melody. Ken stared, transfixed by the sight. The piano was turned just enough that Ken could see both men's faces. Schuldig played with his eyes closed, half-leaning forward into the music. Crawford's eyes were half-lidded as he watched his fingers move. They played like they killed, with enviable perfection and precision.

      He and Farfarello had gone out and massacred forty-seven people with blades, and Crawford and Schuldig were playing Moonlight Sonata on a grand piano in a Roppongi penthouse apartment. It should have been impossible. It should have felt obscene somehow. In another life, Schuldig would be a world-class musician, Crawford would be a successful businessman, Ken would be a professional athlete, and Farfarello would have had a loving family and a religion that held him together.

      Instead they were here.

      Ken couldn't think of anywhere he'd rather be.


      Living with Schwarz meant living a lifestyle that was both extravagant and savage. Everything they did in public, they did knowing that their clients would eventually find out, from what they ate to where they shopped to who they consorted with. Living such sophisticated, scrutinized lives would have been too much for any of them to stand if not for the nature of their business. Tucked away inside their expensive apartment, they plotted assassinations and political games. In broad daylight and dark shadows both, they slit throats and destroyed lives. The blood-letting and one-upping made it possible to hide behind the masks of the well-to-do and added a perverse twist to it, that they could look so civilized when they were really sadistic, murder-hungry bastards.

      The months following Ken's transfer to Schwarz were particularly stressful months, since none of their clients were sure what to think about a trade in players. It made them nervous, made them think that maybe there had been problems in the team. There was immense pressure on Ken to succeed in his new role. The pressure Ken put on himself was even greater. He refused to let his team down after everything they'd done for him. He just hadn't realized how much he had to learn to make things work.

      Crawford taught Ken Schwarz's brand of politics and arrogance. Ken spent more time with him than either of the others. Sometimes all he did was sit at Crawford's desk and study files on their clients and clients' businesses. Often he went along with Crawford to meetings and negotiations. Conferences were insanely boring but necessary. Ken distracted himself by watching the way Crawford effortlessly manipulated the men and women they met with. A couple hours here and there and Crawford could turn their clients whichever way he wanted them to go.

      Schuldig took on the task of teaching Ken how to present himself in public, attitude-wise and appearance-wise. Ken understood body language the same way anyone else did: on a subconscious level. Schuldig forced him to really pay attention to expressions and stances and taught Ken to master both. Ken had always been the short-tempered, rash one of his group. Schuldig didn't want to change that part of his personality, but he did want Ken to hide it whenever he was away from home. Schuldig turned reckless anger into lethal intent and hot anger cold.

      "It's the ice you have to worry about," Schuldig told Ken time and time again. "A hothead is an amateur and an annoyance; he shoots first and asks later. He's uncontrollable. It's the unpredictable one who makes the real impact: the cold-hearted, calculating man who knows exactly how far he's willing to go to get what he wants. If I stand you and Farfarello in the same room, who do you think they're going to be more afraid of?"

      Ken thought Farfarello had the advantage based on his looks, but he kept his mouth shut on that. If Schuldig wanted him to be cold, then he'd be cold. For the first several weeks, it took a lot of concentration to keep up such a façade. By the second month, it had become habit, like a switch being flipped whenever he left the apartment. He knew it would become instinctive before long.

      Farfarello's role in Ken's education was much simpler, but just as important. He was there to help Ken adjust to the intense shift in lifestyles. If Ken started to get too uptight over getting things right or started to get too frustrated by playing nice with assholes, Farfarello took Ken across the city and found them someone to kill or something to destroy. It was an effective way of blowing off steam and clearing his head.

      They were barely into the third month when Kritiker came calling on them. Schwarz was an unparalleled force in the underworld. Ken had known word would eventually make it back to Kritiker's spies. Crawford told them about the upcoming meeting over breakfast, saying that Takatori would be by at nine that night to discuss Ken's future. Ken laughed into his milk, inhaling some of it, and Crawford thumped him on the back to clear his lungs.

      "My future?" Ken asked when he could breathe. "If he had his way, I wouldn't have one. Where does he get off thinking he has any say in it?"

      "Delusion," Schuldig answered. "His company created you, and all."

      "The only one who has claim to my future is Crawford," Ken said huffily.

      Across from him, Schuldig hid a smirk in his toast. Blue eyes flicked Crawford's way, trying to gauge the precognitive's reaction to such words. Ken didn't bother to follow Schuldig's look, but he understood the reasons behind it. It would have been impossible to not figure it out by now, what with all of Schuldig's sly looks and aborted taunts. A part of Ken had understood from day one exactly what Crawford wanted from him, but it had taken him a month to realize he'd drawn the right conclusions. He'd spent the second month trying to figure out what to think about such a thing.

      He was not as bothered by it as he honestly thought he should be.

      "Either way," Crawford said after a short pause, "you and Farfarello should time your run to be back at nine."

      Ken flashed him a thumbs-up and went back to eating. Knowing he'd have to deal with Kritiker later made his breakfast a little less appetizing, but he forced it down anyway. He brushed his teeth, then turned the bathroom over to Crawford. They left together a half-hour later, out for a day of meetings and prospecting. They ended up in the library in the afternoon, reading archived articles from journals and newspapers. Their client wanted to expand through acquisitions, but wanted Schwarz to decide which industry to invade. Schwarz had spent two weeks on field work so far, trying to narrow down their choices.

      By mid-afternoon, they were both ready to call it a day. They drove back to the apartment in silence and found their teammates absent. Crawford and Ken carried their day's reports to Crawford's room. Ken watched as Crawford tagged what needed to be marked and filed everything in the appropriate places.

      "I'll ask one last time," Ken said. "How long ago did you figure out you wanted me?"

      Crawford glanced his way as he took the top reports from the stack in Ken's arms. "I have always found you attractive," he said simply, not at all worried about saying such a thing out loud. He flipped through the files, found the one he wanted, and put the rest away. He sorted through the rest of what Ken was holding. "Your idealism was an unfortunate flaw, but by the time we managed to get you and Kudou to Europe, things had changed."

      "A flaw," Ken drawled. Crawford wordlessly set the last of the files on the desk. Ken caught his sleeve to stop him before he could finish tidying things up.

      "Two years ago, I could have propositioned you, and you would have been disgusted," Crawford pointed out.

      "And now?" Ken pressed.

      "Now you're here," Crawford said.

      Ken considered that, then let go of Crawford's shirt. Crawford finished up his work. Ken lingered, not really sure what to say next, not really sure where this was supposed to go. In the end he left Crawford to his organizing and headed for the couch in the living room. Crawford joined him a few minutes later and sat in one of the chairs. Ken hugged a leg to his chest and propped his chin on his knee, content to study Crawford in silence. Crawford tolerated the scrutiny without question, more interested in the book he'd brought with him.

      The clock on the wall chimed softly on the hour, then chimed again as Ken lost track of time. He heard the key turn in the lock as the rest of their team returned. Schuldig was laughing as he came down the short hall into the living room, but he stopped the second he spotted the two. His gaze bounced from one to the other and his eyebrows disappeared behind his bangs. Ken wasn't sure what the telepath heard from them, but whatever it was, Schuldig hadn't expected it.

      "Soooo," he said.

      "Quiet," was all Crawford had to say.

      Schuldig crossed the room and dropped to the couch beside Ken. He pulled a small tube out of one pocket and pushed it into Ken's hand. Ken frowned down at it in incomprehension, dimly aware that Crawford was giving Schuldig an unfriendly look. He finally turned it enough to see the name, and he shot Schuldig a quick look.

      "I didn't say anything," Schuldig told Crawford, the perfect picture of innocence. The farce lasted for all of three seconds, and then he was offering Ken a wicked grin. "Of course, actions speak louder than words. Even telepaths know that."

      "Don't meddle," Crawford warned him.

      "I'm encouraging," Schuldig said, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. "There is a difference, you know, and a serious limit on how patient I can be."


      "Farfarello, they need private time," Schuldig said, moving to get off the couch.

      Ken finally got his wits together, but the first thing that popped out of his mouth probably wasn't the smartest thing to say. "But I don't like strawberries."

      Schuldig forgot that he was on his way up and instead turned to stare at Ken. Only two months of Schuldig's tutelage kept Ken from flushing as he was subjected to three heavy gazes. He forced himself to look at Schuldig, knowing the German could see right through his mask, and turned the tube so Schuldig could see the bold kanji indicating the lube's flavor.

      Schuldig's smile was slow. Crawford does.

      Ken opened his mouth, but there wasn't anything he could say to that. All the training in the world couldn't save him now and he felt it when his face went hot. He should have known better than to look at Crawford, but he couldn't help it. Crawford wasn't looking at him; the American was staring hard at Schuldig.

      "Schuldig," Crawford said. Ken heard an 'I'll kill you' behind that conversational tone.

      "Have fun killing people," Schuldig told Ken. "Crawford and I are going to do the yell-at-each-other thing for a little while."

      Ken looked at the clock, startled a little bit out of his embarrassment by that encouragement. It was half past six; he and Farfarello needed to be leaving in fifteen minutes. Ken looked over at Farfarello, who was staring at the ceiling as he tuned the whole conversation out. Ken decided the other man wouldn't be averse to leaving early. He shoved himself up from the couch and went down the hall to collect his gloves. It wasn't until he'd reached out to pick them up that he realized he was still holding the lube.

      He hesitated, staring down at the bottle, and then tucked it under his pillow. He couldn't help himself, and asked, How do you know?

      I've been living with the guy my entire life. You don't honestly think Crawford's going on thirty and still a virgin, do you?

      Ken supposed that made sense. There was a moment of relief that he ruthlessly squished: the realization that at least one of them had a clue what was going on. He snatched up his bag before his thoughts could continue down that path and hurried down the hall to meet Farfarello at the door. Schuldig was smiling as the younger half left, but Ken didn't think he'd be smiling much longer when he was left alone with an irritated Crawford.

      I'm pretty sure I can barter your thoughts for my reprieve.

      You said you weren't going to get involved in his personal life.

      I lied. What else is new?

      "It's your fault if you actually believed me,"
Ken sent back, mocking the man's usual answer for his hypocrisy.

      The monkey learns.

      Ken decided to let it drop. Death made a lot more sense than relationships did, so he was content to shove it all aside for a couple hours. He was feeling much better by the time they got back. Schuldig met them in the garage, same as always. Ken and Farfarello cleaned everything up and followed Schuldig back to the apartment. Schuldig offered Ken an unfriendly smile as he stepped onto the elevator.

      "Takatori's here," he said, and he slid his gaze Farfarello's way. "He brought Nagi."

      "More fool him," Farfarello responded.

      "Kind of arrogant of him to show up here himself," Ken mused.

      "He's got a little bit of immunity, for now." Schuldig shrugged. "Guy like that thinks he's invincible. He's pretty sure you're not, though. He brought Nagi along so Nagi could kill you. When Nagi refuses, that contract of theirs will crumble like sand."

      Ken counted months up on his fingers. "Crawford's paperwork has a date on it," he said. "Nagi will be back on the team within two weeks."

      "Team loyalty," Schuldig mocked Ken. "Amazing concept."

      Ken scowled at him.

      The apartment was dead silent and rife with tension when they arrived. Crawford, Nagi, and Mamoru were sitting in the living room, the two younger men on the couch and Crawford in his usual chair. Ken's gaze went to Crawford first, then to Nagi, his up-and-coming teammate. They sized each other up, trying to figure out if they could make this team thing work. Finally Ken looked over at Mamoru, the last person he wanted to deal with tonight or ever.

      They'd been friends, once. They'd been best friends. But Mamoru believed in justice and a ruthless elimination of evil, and Ken lived for the kill. As soon as their paths had started diverging enough that Ken would be a problem, Mamoru had signed the papers for his execution. Friendship was awfully cheap when a man held Mamoru's rank. Thing was, Ken figured Mamoru saw it as completely justified, and Ken had proved Mamoru right by signing on with Schwarz.

      "You're alive," Mamoru noted.

      "Amazing, isn't it?" Ken asked.

      "Not particularly," Mamoru said, going with honesty. Ken opted to go with ice. He smiled at Mamoru as if those words didn't bother him, realizing only belatedly that they really didn't. "You understood the terms of your incarceration. You agreed. I do not appreciate you reneging on the deal."

      "I didn't," Ken said, brushing wet hair out of his face. "I simply chose to interpret it a different way. You wanted me to stay locked up until I 'learned to control my shadows' and 'came back to my senses'. I did learn control. I did figure things out. We just reached two entirely different conclusions."

      "You are a coward," Mamoru decided, "deciding your one life is worth more than the lives of the people you've killed. How many people have died for you these past two months, Ken?"

      "Oh, come on, Omi, how's a simple assassin like me supposed to do that kind of math?"

      Mamoru fixed him with a stony look. "Do not call me that."

      "Don't," Ken returned icily, "call me Ken. You lost that right."

      Silence stretched between them, and then Mamoru got to his feet. "Your actions are unforgivable. You have turned into a monster. Kritiker gave you a valuable mission: to protect innocents and stop the people who would hurt them. You have forgotten your purpose. You are nothing but a sick, twisted wreck, and you will die for it. Kritiker has judged you."

      His mini-speech might have been a bit more impressive or intimidating if Nagi had followed his silent cue and killed Ken. Instead Nagi sat silent and still, content to gaze through the far wall. Ken said nothing, giving Mamoru plenty of time to realize his contracted telekinetic would not follow his lead. Mamoru hid his anger well; being a Takatori meant he'd had to learn to control his expressions as well as Ken had. Ken, who had lived with Mamoru for five years, could still tell.

      "I strongly suggest you watch your back, Hidaka," Mamoru said at length.

      "And I would strongly advise you against marking Ken as a target," Crawford said.

      "An attack on Ken is an attack on Schwarz," Schuldig added. "I really don't think you want to make enemies with us."

      Mamoru said nothing to that immediately. He didn't look at either of the older men; he kept his gaze locked on Ken's face. At last he said, "I am very disappointed in you."

      A year ago, that might have hurt. Today, Ken smiled. "I don't care."

      "You have officially overstayed your welcome, Takatori," Crawford said.

      Ken took a step to one side, getting out of the doorway, and pointed his thumb over his shoulder. "The door."

      Mamoru lingered a few moments more, studying each assassin in turn. Ken knew that look in his eye well enough: it was the look he turned on the Bad Guys. Ken wasn't worried. First of all, Kritiker had never succeeded against Schwarz before. Second, Kritiker needed Schwarz intact and working. Because of Schwarz's monopoly on Japan, Kritiker could keep an eye on the underworld through Schwarz's actions. Schwarz didn't work for Kritiker, but Kritiker viewed them as treacherous insiders of a sort.

      Finally Mamoru started for the door. Nagi got to his feet and followed after him, but his gaze was on Ken instead of Mamoru's back. He said nothing and didn't smile, and they only broke eye contact when Nagi had moved passed him and couldn't see his face anymore. Ken listened to the door open and shut behind the pair.

      "He's going to be hell to deal with ten years down the road," Schuldig noted.

      "We will deal with him later," Crawford said, more interested in Ken's reaction.

      "I don't know him anymore," Ken said when his teammates turned on him.

      "He thinks the same of you," Schuldig said with a careless shrug.

      Ken didn't bother to answer that. He turned and set off down the hall for a shower. He wanted to stay under the spray long enough to come to terms with his dead relationship with Mamoru, but he didn't really want to think about it. He ended up cutting the water off when his thoughts turned morose and padded down his room to get into his pajama pants.

      It wasn't until he made it back to the living room that he realized Schuldig and Farfarello were gone. Ken stood in the middle of the living room, studying the fine furnishing, the brilliant view, and the man standing on the balcony. When Crawford came back inside a few minutes later, Ken was ready for him. He stayed where he was and let Crawford come to him, though he was more than willing to reach out and catch hold of the older man.

      Crawford kissed him then, and Ken knew he would never look back.

      Let Mamoru be disappointed. Let Kritiker loathe him. Let Weiß fall to pieces. He didn't care. He dreamed in blood and death, and this was all he needed. He was Hidaka Ken; he was Schwarz.

The End
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